Rick Perry slams feds for slow fire aid, after huge cuts to quicker state response

Posted on: September 7th, 2011 by Patrick Michels 4 Comments

As fire crews continue battling some of the worst blazes this dry state has seen in years, Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a break from his presidential campaign early this week, for a look at what he called “one of the meanest fires I’ve ever seen,” taking aerial tours of Bastrop County and a neighborhood west of Austin.

At a press conference Tuesday, still honing the sharp delivery he’ll show off at tonight’s GOP presidential debate, Perry recalled seeing “pretty powerful visuals of individuals who’ve lost everything from the standpoint of their homes and possessions.”

Perry said 3.6 million acres of Texas have burned since the fire season began in December — a land mass he pointed out was the size of Connecticut. (Even our tragedies are occasion for superlatives.) He pointed out the state is handling around 50 fires, but that doesn’t count what the local fire departments are fighting around the state.

“Texas appreciates the resources and support we continue to receive from across the state and across the country to fight these fires,” Perry added in a statement, but he didn’t miss an opportunity to dig at the Obama administration, reminding that the federal government denied his request for emergency assistance funding in May, before getting “partial approval” in July.

While 30 or so Texas Forest Service and Texas National Guard helicopters fight the fires, Perry also said he was frustrated by the slow response to his requests for military equipment from Fort Hood as well. That request must be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, then the Department of Defense, a process Perry said is taking far too long, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

“It’s more difficult than it should be,” he said, according to the Statesman. “When you have people hurting, when lives are in danger, I don’t care who owns the asset.”

But while Perry complains about the feds’ response, he and Texas lawmakers have also been called to task for huge cuts to state firefighting resources passed earlier this year. The two-year budget that took effect last Thursday includes a 75 percent slash to volunteer fire departments — from $30 million to $7 million — and a one-third cut to the Texas Forest Service. State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said this year’s fires near the capital city underscore the need to better fund the emergency-services districts stretched thin at the outskirts of Texas’ growing cities.

Texas’ 879 volunteer departments are the first line of defense against wildfires for much of the state. The forest service, with 230 firefighters and 15 trucks, provides statewide support. After that, help comes from the federal government and other states.

Those resources have been strained this year, which has seen six of the 10 worst fires in Texas history. Nearly half the land burned in U.S. fires this year is in Texas.

‘No financial impediment’
But the politicians who crafted Texas’ current budget say the state will have no problem paying to fight these fires.

The forest service saw its budget cut from $117.7 million to $83 million, but the Texas Legislature threw it an extra $121 million this year, to cover its firefighting costs over the last two years, the Houston Chronicle reported. Much of that came from the state’s rainy day fund, Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) told the Chronicle.

“There is no financial impediment for (the forest service) to respond,” Ogden told the Statesman Tuesday.

As forest service spokeswoman Holly Huffman told the paper, the state will get around to paying to fight these fires when lawmakers reconvene in a couple of years:

Huffman said it is impossible to plan for fires of this magnitude, so the agency will ask legislators when they return in 2013 to cover the expense of fighting the fires now.

An additional $121 million , for instance, was allocated by legislators after-the-fact to pay for last spring’s wildfire expenses, as well as earlier fires. Another $61.5 million will be needed to cover fire costs incurred since legislators left Austin in June.

“We’ll deal with the dollar side of it when that’s appropriate,” Gov. Rick Perry told CBS’s “The Early Show” on Tuesday morning. “The money side of this will take care of itself later.”

Long-term prevention is quicker, cheaper

But in a Wednesday Houston Chronicle report, Watson said taking care of the money side is just what lawmakers should have been doing in Austin earlier this year:

“There will be plenty of time to consider the causes of this tragedy and different strategies that might have prevented it. However, it would be refreshing to see those in control – of the Capitol and of the budgeting process – express as much concern about preventing these tragedies before they take place as they do after land, property and possessions of Texans are lost,” Watson said.

In fact, the Texas firefighting force that’s battling flames right now is a result of a beefed-up budget approved by legislators in 2009, after the forest service succeeded in convincing lawmakers it was a wise investment. In 2008, Texas was coming off another serious drought, and a wildfire season two years earlier that required huge federal assistance including $34 million in FEMA grants.

In a funding request for 2010-2011, Texas Forest Service directors made a strong case for a bigger up-front investment from the state. “National mobilization costs 3-4 times per unit (a firefighter, a dozer) as it does to have our own state resources,” directors wrote, and take longer to arrive. “It takes three to five days to mobilize out-of-state resources. Our urgent resource requests could be efficiently alleviated if we had adequate state resources to rapidly attack and keep wildfires from turning into large, complex, multiple-day events.”

“We have examples of communities being burned because the state did not have enough resources,” directors wrote. The legislature responded with a $15 million bump in forest service funding, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in April.

This year, though, lawmakers rolled back the forest service budget, mostly by cutting its funding for grants that help volunteer fire departments buy new equipment.

Next year’s fires

The Texas Forest Service reported Wednesday morning that the Bastrop County fire is 30 percent contained. When it’s extinguished, and the bill comes due for the rest of this year’s wildfires, Texas lawmakers will eventually get around to paying it off — likely from the same rainy day fund they’ll need to cover the rest of the state’s shortfalls.

Texas’ drought is no temporary arrangement, though, and the ongoing urban sprawl will ensure homes keep crawling farther out into wildfire territory.

But thanks to cuts made this year by the Legislature, when those fires start up next year, and the year after that, Texas’ volunteer fire departments will head out to battle those flames with the same trucks and gear damaged in this year’s fires.

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