Texas Politicians Press Feds for Fire Relief Money

A Bastrop resident points to flames as smoke billows over Texas 71 in Bastrop Country during the wildfires on September 5, 2011.
A Bastrop resident points to flames as smoke billows over Texas 71 in Bastrop Country during the wildfires on September 5, 2011.

As the 35,000-acre blaze in Bastrop continues to rage, Texas is starting to tally up the damage — and politicians are going hat in hand to the federal government, asking for more disaster relief funding.

On Monday, Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison wrote to President Obama, urging him to approve an expanded disaster declaration — which would trigger more federal funding — "as expeditiously as possible" (though Cornyn also said on the Senate floor today that additional federal disaster spending should be offset by budget cuts elsewhere, according to The Hill). State Rep. Garnet Coleman and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both Democrats of Houston, also wrote to the president asking for the new disaster declaration, which was submitted on Wednesday by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

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

Meanwhile, the most destructive blaze in state history continued to rage in Bastrop County; it has destroyed more than 1,500 homes since it began on Sunday. Two people died in that fire, one of them a city of Austin employee. While firefighters have made progress, fire officials worried that winds could increase on Thursday afternoon, creating new problems.

The fires have brought unprecedented disaster to the state all year. Since last November more than 3.5 million acres have burned, an area larger than Connecticut. And in the past week alone the Texas Forest Service, the lead firefighting agency, has responded to 176 fires, covering 126,844 acres. 

 

The strain is evident to the budgets of both the Forest Service and local firefighting units, which are the first to respond to fires.

The total estimated fire costs for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31 reached $216 million (in addition to the Forest Service's normal operating budget), according to Robby DeWitt, the finance chief for the Forest Service. "With the ongoing fire activity, this figure continues to increase daily," he said, noting that the number includes some prior year bills.

Reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were estimated at only $33.5 million, meaning that the vast majority of Forest Service costs will come from the state of Texas, in supplemental appropriations from the 2011 Legislature and additional funds to be requested from lawmakers the next time they meet, in 2013.

More money could presumably come through an expanded disaster declaration for the wildfires (President Obama already granted some disaster relief earlier this year), but "it's too soon to know" how much it would amount to, according to Mike Walz, communications director for Dewhurst. That's because the amount will depend on factors like how many counties are covered and the amount of the assessed costs, Walz said. 

The Legislature recently slashed the budget of the Texas Forest Service by $34 million over two years, and the cuts just took effect eight days ago. But the Forest Service reports that this will have no immediate impact on its firefighting capabilities, because the cuts mainly affected grants the agency doles out to local firefighting groups. A recent state report had criticized those grants as inefficiently dispensed.

However, local firefighting units are feeling the pain. The longer-than-usual wildfire season, which began last December due to the drought, has "placed a tremendous amount of strain on local fire departments," said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas. As a result of the state budget cuts, a pool of grant money that went toward buying or fixing equipment and purchasing fuel has dropped from $21 million to just $7 million per year. More than 75 percent of the fire departments in Texas are staffed by volunteers, Barron said, and most of the volunteers already "take money out of their personal bank account, personal pocketbooks" to pay for some expenses.

Asked how the local departments would make up the shortfall, Barron said: "I don't know," adding: "The state has not released any money. I don't think they have any money to release other than a Rainy Day Fund." In March, as big fires began to flare up, a nonprofit called the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund began operations to provide supplemental aid for local departments, but so far only a little over $200,000 has come in, Barron said.

Meanwhile, the drought — and correspondent wildfire risks — are likely to continue. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency, announced that La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that has been blamed for causing the drought, has returned and is "expected to gradually strengthen" and persist into the winter, though how strong it will get is unknown. It is likely that La Niña would prolong the drought, though it's not certain. Already 81 percent of Texas has earned the worst drought classification

And the new tropical storm named Nate in the Gulf of Mexico has "no chance of it making its way to Texas," state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said in an email on Wednesday (before Nate formally became a tropical storm).

So if cold fronts keep rolling in during the fall, bringing wind but little moisture, it will mean more long days and nights, for firefighters.

 

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