Gov. Rick Perry sees Texas wildfires as statewide emergency. FEMA doesn't?

Ten days have elapsed since Gov. Rick Perry (R) asked for a federal disaster declaration, to get more US help to fight Texas wildfires. Why a slow answer could backfire for both Obama and Perry.

By , Staff writer

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    Firefighters from the City of Lewisville, Texas work to extinguish spot fires at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas on Thursday, April 21. Crews have been trying to contain a week-old wildfire in the Possum Kingdom Lake area about 70 miles west of Fort Worth that has blackened nearly 150 square miles of fields and woods and destroyed at least 160 of the community's 3,000 homes.
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In a strongly worded letter to President Obama on April 16, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked for a federal emergency declaration that would release more US resources – and cash – to fight what may be the worst wildfire season in Lone Star State history.

"I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state," Governor Perry wrote.

Ten days later, that appeal has gone unanswered, though nearly 1 million acres have burned in the meantime. Last week, Perry asked Texans to pray for rain to stall fires that have scorched nearly 2 million acres since late last year – the amount that had burned in 2008, when President Bush, a Texas resident, declared a federal emergency in Texas on March 15.

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In an e-mail, FEMA spokesman Bradley Carroll said Perry's request for a statewide disaster declaration is under review. He also noted that in cases of natural disasters such as wildfires, the first responders are local emergency personnel, volunteers, humanitarian organizations, and private groups, and he pointed to 20 fire management assistance grants that FEMA has already applied to specific working fires in Texas. The grant money can be used to cover as much as three-quarters of Texas's eligible firefighting costs, such as expenses for field camps, equipment, and firefighter mobilization and demobilization, for a specific fire.

"We expect the [disaster declaration] to be going through approval, but we have not received it yet," says Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry. In the meantime, she adds, "Texas continues to pull all resources available toward fighting these fires, and we're doing everything at the state level to continue fighting this and ensure that we protect property in Texas as best as possible."

Though the governor of red-state Texas and President Obama are perhaps not the best of friends, there's no evidence that politics is behind the delay. Moreover, the US Forest Service is fully involved in supporting the Texas firefighting.

Still, some note, North Carolina received a presidential disaster declaration on April 20, four days after a rash of tornadoes tore through that state. Similarly, it took President Bush four days after the October 2007 California wildfires began burning to declare it a national emergency.

"There's two reasons why I don't think there's any political footdragging," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, in Austin. "One, it's not Obama's style, and, two, it would be a politically costly thing to do when Americans are in danger."

The delay in declaring Texas a disaster area nonetheless has some people scratching their heads. Perry has publicly criticized Mr. Obama on several occasions for matters ranging from federal stimulus funds to border security and once entertained the idea of seceding to end "federal interference" in the affairs of the Lone Star State.

"We're not sure why there's been no federal declaration, though we do know that Texas is No. 1 on FEMA's list on the number of declarations they've had [granted]," says Debbie Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, an association of private firefighting contractors. Historically, Texas has more federal emergency declarations – 84 – than any other state; California is second with 78.

More Texas wildfires are expected this week as the weather shifts again to hot, dry, and windy – meaning delay could have implications. Currently 27 federally contracted wildland fire strike teams – including some of the most experienced frontline firefighters in the country – are sitting on the sidelines. It's not altogether clear why Texas has not yet asked to tap those teams, says Ms. Miley, though she says cost and repayment terms may be factors.

Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb said last week that Texas is "beefing up" its resources to handle the volatile, fast-moving blazes that have burned more than 350 homes and killed three people since late last year. But he also acknowledged that the logistics of the effort, including the ordering of more equipment and firefighting help, "is growing increasingly complex."

FEMA has made 20 emergency declarations for individual fires in the state, but Texas has already run up a $23 million tab with the federal government even as the Texas Forest Service scrambles for funds. The agency on Monday asked the Texas legislature for a supplemental infusion of $40 million to cover wildfire-related costs, most of which has been incurred during the current wildfire season.

A federal emergency declaration for this year's wildfire season means US taxpayers would pick up the tab for 75 percent of the total cost of the statewide fires. The total tab could run to $70 million. The state legislature, meanwhile, recently proposed slicing $34 million out of the Texas Forest Service's $109 million biennial budget, with most of the cuts coming from training and equipment grants for volunteer crews who deal with wildfires.

For Obama's part, a slow response to Texas in its hour of need could become a political liability, much as the sluggish federal response after hurricane Katrina in 2005 put the focus on President Bush's leadership, says Professor Buchanan at UT. While visiting Texas last week, Obama became testy under questioning from reporter Brad Watson, who asked whether he planned to write off Texas as a place to campaign in 2012. Said Obama, "I never write off states and I love Texas."

For Perry's part, the request for federal help – and the ensuing wait – could also take a political toll.

"There is the irony because of the refusal of various federal funds, because of strings attached, that Texas didn't want to take," says Buchanan. "The governor has put himself a bit on his own petard, as it were, just in terms of the sudden discovery of a need for the help of national government after having lambasted it so resoundingly for so long."

IN PICTURES: Texas wildfires

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