Wildfire protection plan not fully funded in Texas

Wildfire protection plan not fully funded in Texas

15 September 2011

published by www.thenewstribune.com

USA — Long before this month’s historic wildfires in Texas, the state’s forest service came up with a $20.4 million plan to stop the flames from starting or tamp them out before small blazes grew deadly and destructive.

Three years later, the plan is still only half-funded – a result of the weak economy, a strained state budget and what one former lawmaker calls a “dereliction of duty” by legislators.

In 2008, the Texas Forest Service made a sales pitch for a wildfire protection plan that called for adding more than 200 firefighters, creating rapid-response teams to quash small flare-ups, building advanced automated weather stations and establishing two training academies for wildfire crews.

“We cannot over-emphasize the protection aspects of this plan,” officials wrote in their request for money. When fully funded and implemented, the program was “guaranteed to protect lives and properties.”

The idea for the plan dated to 1999. But over nearly a decade of steadily worsening fires, the budget request acquired a sense of urgency. By 2008, it declared: “This is the final straw! Bigger fires call for bigger state resources!”

The Forest Service concedes that even the full fire-protection system would not have completely spared Texas from last week’s catastrophic fires, which incinerated more than 1,700 homes, blackened tens of thousands of acres and killed four people.

But the plan was designed to limit exactly those types of widespread losses – and at a fraction of the price of fighting full-blown fires.

Forest Service officials say they harbor no ill will toward lawmakers. It was the agency’s own idea to increase funding only incrementally given economic realities.

Still, at least one critic says the decision to leave the plan only partially funded reflects lawmakers’ reluctance to make big investments to prevent emergencies.

Former Republican state Rep. David Swinford used to represent the Panhandle, which in 2006 endured the deadliest wildfire on record in Texas, a blaze that killed 12 people and scorched more than a million acres.

After the flames were out, Swinford worked to increase funding for the wildfire plan and for volunteer fire departments through a tax on insurance companies. He said the state relies on a “crisis management” attitude.

“The dereliction of duty is the state not putting money in that program,” he said. “I got tired of watching it.”

The federal government pays some of the expenses, but this past summer the Forest Service needed an infusion of $121 million from the state.

The annual funding for the program is about $12 million less than what the Forest Service considers necessary, according to the budget request and other documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

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