Perry Asks for Federal Funds to Fight Wildfires After Slashing State Fire Budget

In a state where more than 3.6 million acres have been scorched since December by some of the worst wildfires in state history, Texas’ volunteer fire departments saw their state funding slashed this year to a third of 2010 levels.

In a state strapped with a large budget shortfall, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed off on a budget that cut the volunteer fire department grant program from $23 million to $7 million for the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1.  But as the fires raged on, Perry insisted that the Obama administration declare Texas a disaster area so the Lone Star State could receive federal emergency funds.

“I full well expect the federal government to come in to do their part,” Perry said last week after surveying the central Texas wildfires via helicopter.

Perry, the current GOP presidential front-runner, urged the Texas Legislature not to dip into the state’s rainy-day fund and instead cut back on appropriations during the 2012-2013 budget debates. Those cutbacks included the $16 million cut to the state’s fire department grants.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency heeded Perry’s request for federal funds last week and announced it will cover 75 percent of the wildfire-fighting costs after President Obama declared 52 Texas counties as disaster areas.

“We are trying to get any and all resources we can,” said Lucy Nashed, spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “That’s why we are asking for federal assistance.”

Though the State Forest Service said the effects of the state funding cuts wouldn’t  be felt until next year, firefighters are still worried.

“It is a very tiny amount when no other state funding mechanism is in place to help volunteer firefighters,” said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association, a trade group that represents about 21,000 of the state’s 30,000 volunteer firefighters.

Barron said the grant program was  the only source of state funding for volunteer fire departments, which account for about 77 percent of Texas’s fire departments.

The Texas Forest Service, which employs about 330 firefighters, also saw its funding cut from $117 million in 2010 to $83 million per year in 2012 and 2013. The Forest Service budget includes the volunteer grant program.

But Robby DeWitt, the forest service’s associate finance director, said the budget cuts will not affect the service’s ability to fight the current fires because the grants would take months to award.

“They are significant reductions. The impact they are going to have is we won’t be awarding truck grants for the next two years,” DeWitt said. “It will have no immediate impact on the current fire season or the current firefighting efforts.”

DeWitt said the grant funding was increased to $30 million in 2007 in order to provide funding for new fire trucks. Because the department will be providing funds for new trucks, he said, the $7 million allocated per year for 2012 and 2013 will be enough to cover the needs of the state’s fire departments.

“Mainly their operations are funded locally,” DeWitt said. “The grants program was a way the state of Texas chose to help build capacity in the volunteer fire departments through training and trucks.”

The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association set up a Texas Wildfire Relief Fund in March to help meet the financial needs of the state’s firefighters. Kelsey Coleman, the fund’s development director, said about $500,000 worth of requests have poured into the relief fund since it began less than six months ago, primarily for lightweight protective gear. So far the association has raised about $200,000.

“With the historic wildfire season we’ve had this year, even without the budget cuts, the need for funding for volunteer firefighters would still be great,” Coleman said.

She said she has seen many firefighters buying day-to-day supplies with their personal credit cards and battling the fires in “street clothes” because the funds were not available to buy protective gear.

“Many volunteers are filling up fire trucks on their own credit card and buying day-to-day supplies like water,” Coleman said. “Volunteer fire departments have very small budgets and are mainly funded through donation efforts.”

With 190 fires burning throughout the state in the past weeks, Texas has called in help from both the federal government and other states. California alone has sent more than 700 fire personnel to help control the blazes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“If we didn’t have the funding cuts, we could make sure the fire departments have the resources they need and rely on Texas resources to fight Texas fires,” Barron said. “When you have to stretch [$7 million] across 1,400 volunteer fire departments, it doesn’t go very far.”

Barron said the cost of the fires, the worst of which has burned more than 1,550 homes in the Austin area, is “well over $120 million,” which the state will have to pay back to the U.S. Forest Service during the next legislative session.

“I don’t know what else it’s going to take to show the lawmakers and the public that the fire service is greatly underfunded,” Barron said.