Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Slash & Burn, Faith Based Fire Fighting: Rick Perry Slashed Funding For Fighting Wildfires, Called For Prayer Instead

UPDATE: There's more on this story here, including more background, latest developments, pictures and quotes...

UPDATE 2: The latest on the Bastrop Complex fire can be found here...
Martin Mars Water Bomber

What's wrong with this picture? Right now the world’s largest air tanker, the Boeing 747, and the world’s largest water bomber, the Martin Mars, are working wildfires in Mexico while helicopters and small scoops struggle to fight the Texas fires, thanks to Rick Perry gutting funding for fighting wildfires.

Texas is burning. Again. Out of control wildfires are raging across the state. As I write this, around the Austin area 1000 homes have already been destroyed. Many more are threatened. And still the fires rage out of control. Wildfires are part of living in Texas. But the number, size and destructiveness of this year's fires is unprecedented. Part of the reason is record drought. Part of the reason is stupidity. It didn't have to be this way. While nothing will give people back their homes or the lives lost, it's important to understand why this is happening and what we can do about it.

In Texas local fire departments, most of them rural volunteer units supported by bake sales and fish fries, bear the brunt of the burden for fighting wildfires. These local departments depend on direct funding from the state and funding in the form of grants from the Texas Forest Service to buy and maintain much needed equipment. Back in 2008 the Texas Forest Service warned that we were likely to see more fires, larger fires and more destructive fires as a result of long standing drought conditions afflicting much of the state. The Texas Lege responded by adding $15 million to the TFS budget for fighting wildfires.

Earlier this spring, with the drought at record proportions and more than 1 million Texas acres already ablaze, Rick Perry and the GOP dominated Texas Lege were again deciding on funding to fight wildfires. With $135 million in backlogged grant requests from local fire departments and projections of a record year for wildfires, TFS again warned of catastrophic dangers and requested an increase in funding to fight wildfires. Perry and the Lege responded by not funding the $135 million backlog and slashing $34 million dollars from the wildfire budget, about one third of the total, gutting the agency's ability to fight large, dangerous fires.

But Perry and the GOP didn't stop there. In addition to these cuts, they slashed direct funding to volunteer fire departments by 75%, from $30 million per year to just $7 million per year, leaving total funding to fight wildfires in Texas more than $200 million short of funds. Lest you think this was a case of, "Nobody could have foreseen," at the time these the cuts were approved, one million acres of Texas were burning or already reduced to ash, drought conditions were expected to worsen and fire fighters from all over the nation were warning of unprecedented disaster.

In the face of this extreme danger, Perry did take one bold action. On April 21st of this year, in the midst of record drought and with more than one million acres already ablaze, Rick Perry called for three days of prayer for rain to lessen the wildfire threat. While he refused to use emergency legislation to meet the very real fire threat, Perry did use emergency legislation to require any woman seeking an abortion in Texas to go through an invasive vaginal probe sonogram procedure and to sit through a lecture on the evils of abortion.

vaginal sonogram probe
The efforts of our volunteer fire fighters have been nothing short of Homeric. Many have worked for days on end with no backup, no sleep and inadequate manpower and equipment. But it's not nearly enough. It's particularly frustrating to note that, as we sit here and watch helplessly as our friends and neighbors lose their homes and an inadequate fleet of small scoopers and helicopters struggle to fight the blazes, right this minute across the border in Mexico and in many western states smaller than Texas, fleets of the world's largest air tankers, the 747 and DC-10, and the world's largest scooper/water bomber, the Martin Mars, are fighting wildfires. Urgent requests have gone out for heavy water bombers, but we have to wait while they come from places like North Dakota, a state with a population less than that of Austin alone. Only after more than one thousand homes had been destroyed did help arrive in the form of a DC-10 tanker from California.

DC-10 Water Tanker/Bomber
Would more or better equipment have saved houses, neighborhoods and lives? Without a doubt, though there's no way to say this house or that neighborhood would have been spared. Right now fire fighters are spread too thin to effectively fight these fires and they don't have the equipment they need. Because they don't have the manpower and equipment firefighters are  working around the clock for days on end to the point of exhaustion and they still can't fight all of the fires. They have to pick and choose which fires to fight. They're forced to ignore many, some of which, like the Steiner Ranch fire, grew into major dangers that can't be ignored, further stretching an already overwhelmed force.

It takes money to fight fires. Trucks aren't cheap. Water bombers aren't cheap. Equipment isn't cheap. Those who know best, like the professionals at the Forest Service and Austinite Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association and a volunteer fire fighter in South Austin, warned us of the dangers. They told us this was going to happen if we didn't provide at least nominal funding. Barron, commenting on the $135 million in backlogged funding requests, told Reuters back in April, "That alone should say that the departments out there greatly need the funding. Stuff in the fire service is not cheap."

Rick Perry and the GOP had other funding priorities. The Lege did manage to find $8.3 million - an increase of nearly 100% - to fund "crisis pregnancy centers" run by anti-abortion groups without the benefit of doctors or any other medical professionals, in part by slashing $34 million from the TFS budget. While Perry pinches pennies dire warnings have turned into terrible tragedy. Lives have been lost. The cost in property damage alone has already exceeded one billion dollars. Total costs will be astronomical.

Priorities. Back in April as TFS was fighting for funding, Perry advisor Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, told Reuters, "We understand the difficulty they have had in dealing with almost unprecedented numbers of fires this year. We also understand that in order to balance the budget, everybody needs to endure some reductions. We feel they'll be able to handle whatever's thrown at them." Perhaps Heflin and Perry would like to explain to the families of the dead and the thousands burned out of their homes that they just, "...need to endure some reductions."

Choices have consequences. It didn't have to be this way. The first step in problem solving is to identify the cause of the problem. Now that we know the cause of this problem is Rick Perry and the GOP, the solution is obvious.

Here's links to the Texas Forest Service warnings and budget requests:
The 2008 TFS warning and budget request can be found here...

The 2010 TFS warning and budget request can be found here...

UPDATE: There's more on this story here, including more background, latest developments, pictures and quotes...

1 comment:

  1. I hope people wake up and never elect this lunatic, Rick Perry, to anything, ever, ever again.


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