As wildfires burn, Texas lawmakers look to slash firefighting budget

As wildfires burn, Texas lawmakers look to slash firefighting budget

21 April 2011

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USA — As massive wildfires burn across Texas, lawmakers in Austin are poised to cut the Texas Forest Service’s funding for fighting future fires.

The House and Senate have proposed budgets that would slash funding for the agency’s Wildfire and Emergency Program by more than 30 percent. Most of the cuts would translate into fewer grants for volunteer fire departments to buy new equipment, according to Robby DeWitt, the agency’s associate finance director.

Texas is one of the few states that rely primarily on volunteer fire departments to protect rural areas from wildfires.

“When they get an opportunity to use a new piece of equipment, that does improve their ability” to fight fires, DeWitt said. “These are the folks that are normally out there first for forest fires.”

The cuts would reduce the forest service’s wildfire funding to its levels from three years ago, when the agency warned the Legislature that it was stretched too thin.

“Texas is in critical need of additional resources to implement effective prevention and mitigation strategies and to respond when fire breaks,” the agency told the Legislature in 2008. “The potential for a small fire to develop into a large, complex wildfire is greatly reduced with rapid response.”

Lawmakers responded by boosting the agency’s annual funding for fire-related spending by more than $15 million.

In light of the state’s $27 billion budget shortfall, the forest service had asked that its budget be left mostly unchanged. Instead, proposals approved in the House and under consideration in the Senate would cut the annual budget for responding to wildfires and other emergencies from $42 million to $25.8 million.

“If you cut the resources for those planning efforts, it makes future fires more costly and more devastating to communities,” said Jay Farrell, head of the National Association of State Foresters.

Relying on outside help

As fires have gotten bigger and more frequent, the forest service has had to rely more on federal resources and out-of-state firefighters. A firefighting unit from another state costs Texas three to four times as much as its own resources, the agency says, and fires grow while out-of-state help is on its way.

In 2008, the agency told lawmakers that inadequate funding had led to unnecessary destruction and wasteful spending.

“Unfortunately, we have examples of communities being burned over because the state did not have enough resources,” the report stated, citing fires in Midland, Amarillo and Cotulla.

This month, hundreds of wildfires have burned through more than 1 million acres of Texas, overwhelming the forest service and leaving some small communities in ruins. Since Jan. 1, the agency has spent $21.8 million on out-of-state resources, which includes bringing in firefighters and covering their food and lodging, according to spokeswoman April Saginor.

Even after factoring in federal aid, the forest service still routinely outspends its budget because of the costs of fighting bigger and more frequent wildfires, state records show. In 2009, the Legislature had to give the agency an extra $31.5 million to cover costs associated with wildfires in 2008.

This week, the agency requested supplemental funding of $39.8 million to cover costs from wildfires since 2009, DeWitt said. Roughly half that money is related to costs incurred since September.

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