As Wildfires Rage, Texas Forest Service Grapples with Funding Cuts

As the Texas Forest Service battles what may be the state's most destructive wildfire outbreak ever, state lawmakers are facing criticism that they have has taken a penny-wise-pound-foolish approach to funding the agency.

Texas is one of the few states that rely primarily on volunteer fire departments to protect rural areas from wildfires. About 330 firefighters with the forest service traditionally serve as a second tier of defense when such fires get larger than the local department can handle.

The Legislature cut the agency's funding this year to $83 million from $117 million, according to Robby DeWitt, the forest service's associate finance director.

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

The issue is drawing more attention in part because of the sheer scope of the Central Texas wildfire, which has destroyed more than 1,500 homes and killed at least two people. There's also a new political component as critics charge that the budget cuts are proof that the fiscal restraint Gov. Rick Perry is touting on the presidential campaign trail comes at a price.

Perry's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Perry has previously said that his push this year to preserve billions in the rainy day fund was partly in case of a natural disaster. FEMA has begun approving requests for aid.

“Because so many fires are burning across the state, our resources are spread pretty thin,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday. “That's why we need the federal government to step up to the plate immediately. We need to cut through the red tape and get Texas the help we need today.”

In recent years, as the costs of fighting bigger and more frequent wildfires have grown, the forest service has regularly outspent its budget, state records show. Most of the extra money has paid for out-of-state help that can cost up to four times more than comparable in-state resources. The forest service has previously warned lawmakers that underfunding has led to more destructive fires that ultimately cost the state more money.

This year, the back-door funding need has exceeded the forest service's entire budget. As of Aug. 31, the end of the state's fiscal year, the agency spent $182.5 million beyond what the Legislature had originally budgeted, DeWitt said. “That is the problem with the slash and burn approach,” said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. “It's just one example of many in how services have been cut not to the flesh but to the bone.”

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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