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Updated: Wednesday, 07 Sep 2011, 6:24 PM CDT
Published : Wednesday, 07 Sep 2011, 2:58 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - As firefighters across Texas continue to battle more than 50 wildfires, state cuts now affecting the agency largely funding that fight – the Texas Forest Service – could have a detrimental effect on volunteer fire departments.
The fire service faced about a third less funding starting Sept. 1, after lawmakers slashed the appropriation to $75 million for the next two years.
TFS officials said they will likely ask lawmakers in the 2013 legislative session to pay for firefighting efforts now – a move that has worked somewhat in the past. They estimate needing another $61.5 million to pay for firefighting costs that have piled up since the end of the legislative session in June.
However, most of the $35 million cut this legislative session came from a volunteer fire department grant program, according to TFS. In the past, that money went toward equipment purchases and other reimbursements.
Spokeswoman Linda Moon said the agency now plans to focus on firefighter safety for the next budget cycle and fund grants for training and personal protective equipment.
"Funding for trucks will be deferred until the grant funding is restored, which we hope will occur for the next biennium," said Moon.
“It really puts a lot of stress on our volunteer departments,” said Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Barron, who is also the executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas. “Right now, a lot of them use their own money and resources to take care of things, which can be difficult when we call them out to places outside their area.”
Most of the state is protected by volunteer fire departments. There are 879 volunteer departments, 114 paid departments, and 187 with a combination.
Earlier this year, SFFMA said 80 percent of volunteer firefighters in the state are struggling to keep up financially, often using their own money to help pay the cost to fight fires.
For many of those volunteer fire departments, obtaining federal funding might be one of the only options left.
Federal Funding Fight
With state cuts around the corner, Gov. Rick Perry requested that the federal government issue a Major Disaster Declaration – the highest designation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency – earlier this spring in the middle of wildfire season. That would have opened up Direct Federal Assistance and Emergency Protective Measures from FEMA to the state for wildfire response and recovery.
Perry, a GOP candidate for the presidency in 2012, has criticized President Barack Obama’s administration for denying that declaration.
"One of the problems that we've historically had when we're making requests for federal assets -- and I'm talking about DOD in particular -- is there's just a lot of bureaucracy there,” Perry said Tuesday after an aerial tour above wildfire-ravaged Steiner Ranch in West Austin. "I full well expect the federal government to come in and do their part."
After an appeal, Perry saw the federal government partially grant his request, though his office said the request for a full declaration is still pending.
On Tuesday after wildfire outbreaks across Central Texas, FEMA authorized the use of federal funds to pay 75 percent of state and local government eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating, and controlling designated fires.
The addition of these seven latest Fire Management Assistance Grants brings the total of approved FMAGs for Texas to 52 so far in 2011.
The authorization makes FEMA funding available to pay 75 percent of state and local government eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating and controlling designated fires.
State Firefighting Changes
On Sept. 1, a sunset bill meant to overhaul the 95-year-old Texas Forest Service went into effect. Among the provisions, TFS has said it will begin including wildfire danger in its consideration for future grants.
The law also looks at the agency’s work with volunteer fire departments. It sets guidelines for calling in volunteers only after local firefighting resources have been completely tapped.
The agency could pay those volunteers or reimburse volunteer departments for their equipment. It would also require the agency to make the most cost-effective choices when fighting fires – whether that is with volunteers, temporary services, or out-of-state firefighters and equipment.
“Paying out-of-state resources unfortunately becomes the priority,” said Barron. “Our volunteers are often left at the end without anything to cover their costs.”
Emergency Services Districts
In recent years, emergency services districts have grown in Central Texas, as funding has started to dwindle. These are the firefighting districts outside of larger cities like Austin that typically rural areas, which have taxing authority of $0.10 per $100 on property values in their area.
However, state officials like Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said many ESDs like the Lake Travis
Fire-Rescue district – which covers Steiner Ranch – are experiencing challenges as once rural area are becoming urban.
“We’ve been trying to supplement funding for the ESDs in past legislative session,” Watson said. “These wildfires show why it is important for that issue to be addressed.”
Lake Travis Fire Chief Jim Linardos said his department needs more equipment and manpower, but funding is not available for that increase. Currently his five stations have 65 firefighters.
On Wednesday, the state said fighting the Steiner Ranch fire – in Linardos’ backyard – and the nearby Pedernales fire too more than 200 firefighters and trucks from outside of the area.
Linardos said he would like to see voters approve raising that ten-cent limit to 20 cents to prevent that additional cost. State legislation to do just that failed in 2009, and the issue failed to progress in this year’s session. There is talk of re-addressing the matter in 2013.
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