Politics of fighting wildfires: Did Rick Perry's Texas do enough on its own?

Wildfires have taxed the capabilities of Texas to the limit, forcing Gov. Rick Perry, who has slashed firefighting budgets, to press President Obama for millions in federal aid.

Patrik Jonnson/The Christian Science Monitor
A fire truck responds to the Riley Road complex wildfire, 30 miles north of Houston in Magnolia, Texas, as dusk falls. The fire has claimed about 80 homes and was only half contained Thursday as it sent plumes of smoke into the Houston metro area. Statewide, over 1,400 homes have been destroyed or damaged in the last week.
Patrik Jonnson/The Christian Science Monitor
As the Riley Road fire north of Houston burns in the background, a volunteer firefighter tries to fix a broken fire truck. Firefighters and their equipment have been stretched at times beyond their limits as the state has battled over 21,000 fires since last December.

Volunteer firefighter David Hill has frankly “lost count” of the number of Texas wildfires he's fought this year.

A drought and heat wave that's broken records set during the Dust Bowl meant that Day 291 of the Texas wildfire season passed Thursday like malevolent clock work: Over 100 active fires, dozens of new ones being reported, and tired volunteer and professional firefighters digging deep to return to the fire fields and keep overworked equipment running.

“It's something that becomes mentally and physically taxing,” says Mr. Hill of Tomball, Texas, watching the dark plume of the Riley Road complex fire north of Houston.

It’s also something that is testing the independent streak that runs through the Lone Star state and its elected officials, who are confronting the allure of the cost- and risk-sharing benefits of a strong federal government.

Hill is part of a wildland firefighting structure that is usually a fine-tuned collaboration between local firefighters, who have jurisdiction, and a phalanx of local, state and federal authorities, including the US Forest Service, who serve as advisers and procurement agents.

Some 21,000 fires have flared up in Texas since last December. In the last week, 176 more were reported, including one in Bastrop County that has devoured 1,300 homes so far. The fires have stretched the firefighting capabilities of Texas, and the nation, to the limit.

Incident commanders have said some calls for equipment have gone unheeded as planners try to scramble manpower and equipment across this massive state.

“Because so many fires are burning across the state, our resources are spread pretty thin,” Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement. “That's why we need the federal government to step up to the plate immediately.”

Gov. Rick Perry, currently the frontrunner among GOP presidential candidates, has been forced to press President Obama for more than $50 million in federal aid. At the same time, he defends the state's decision to slash by 74 percent the funding for the volunteer fire departments who do most of the work, and to cut the Texas Forest Service's budget by 34 percent, down to its 2008 level.

Money from the state's rainy day fund will be used to fund the current wildfire fighting efforts, Governor Perry says. State legislators will have to reconcile the costs later. The fires are costing the state about $1.5 million a day, 75 percent of which could be recouped from Washington.

Mr. Obama assured Perry in a phone call on Thursday that Washington will expedite consideration of disaster requests.

But what some have called Texas' “slash and burn” approach to balancing its state budget has left volunteer firefighters, who do about 80 percent of the work, in a lurch. Just last week, the most recent budget cuts meant 90 Texas Forest Service employees were laid off. Some volunteers pay for expenses out of pocket. And the repeated emergency calls are stressing equipment like tankers and pumpers not built for continuous use.

On Thursday, one of the Tomball tankers blew a transmission, leaving Hill on the sidelines as the Magnolia fire flared up, cutting across fire lines and highways, and forcing hundreds to rapidly flee their homes. Nearly 100 homes have been lost as a thick haze floated into Houston.

"It's very frustrating that they don't have the proper tools and resources to fight these fires,” Chris Barron, the executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “If fire departments had enough funding, if the forest service had enough funding, we wouldn't be in this predicament each and every year."

Texas' philosophical approach to governing is exemplified by Perry’s attacks on federal overreach. Perry has joined other Republicans in calling for spending cuts to offset any boosts to federal disaster relief funds, which were basically depleted by hurricane Irene. Democrats say they'll test Republicans' mettle by introducing a bill to Congress that boosts funding without offsetting cuts.

It's an uneasy equation. Taxpayers, says Magnolia Fire Chief Vincent Gray, can't afford to have massive amounts of unused equipment stored at strategic staging points. But given the historic drought and powerful wildfires – the Bastrop fire quickly became by far the state's most destructive on record – firefighters have managed to corral necessary resources to manage what he calls “an unprecedented situation.”

“We haven't lost a single life on this fire, so I consider it a success,” he says. Statewide, four people have died in the current conflagrations.

One saving grace has been Texas volunteerism, says an ash-smeared Ray Ruiz, Sr., the Texas Forest Service incident commander on the Riley Road fire.

In Magnolia, volunteers washed the ash-covered windshields of firefighters' personal trucks. A “firefighter rehab” station was set up, pulling in a football game via satellite. And when a professional firefighter from Houston, Clayton Harris, drove up to Magnolia on his day off to volunteer, commanders quickly put him on a local truck. He spent the day in close combat with a flaring forest first that threatened to jump Farm Road 1488.

“The guys on the truck seemed in high spirits,” says Mr. Harris. “They were out doing their job.”

By Thursday night, the Riley Road fire was 50 percent contained, down from 60 percent containment earlier in the day.

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