BASTROP, Texas – Beleaguered firefighters battling one of the most destructive Texas fire seasons on record found themselves punished not only by searing weather, but by lax brush clearance and dwindling budgets.
With no end in sight to scores of blazes – the largest had burned 785 homes and was only 30 percent contained Wednesday – fire officials pleaded for more equipment, and experts urged property owners to do a better job of protecting their homes.
“We needed resources yesterday,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said, noting that he and Gov. Rick Perry – who was in California for a debate of GOP presidential contenders – were requesting that the federal government declare the state a major disaster area.
President Barack Obama called Perry to assure the governor that requests for additional assistance would be quickly assessed, the White House said. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency were in Texas preparing financial assessments to help pay the cost of fighting the fires.
It is unclear what the federal government’s share of the cost will be. In the last week, FEMA agreed to cover 75 percent of the expenses of fighting eight fires across the state.
The Texas Forest Service has been spending about $1.5 million a day on fighting the fires this week, agency spokesman Gary Lacox said. That does not include spending by local fire districts and volunteer fire departments.
As state officials scrambled to summon resources, the magnitude of the wildfires – at least 122 as of Wednesday – continued to overwhelm even the most experienced firefighters.
Officials in hard-hit Bastrop County were confident that firefighters would gain control of the state’s largest and most destructive blaze as winds ease and residents are allowed back into fire-ravaged neighborhoods, perhaps by week’s end. Some residents had done little to prepare for fire.
Ken Gold, a battalion chief from Denton, said residents in a subdivision burned by the Bastrop fire east of Austin had left homes blanketed in 6-inch piles of pine needles as dry as matchsticks.
“They kind of let nature be nature,” Gold said. “It didn’t seem very fire-aware.”
The Bastrop fire forced thousands of residents to evacuate and killed two people.
Lake Travis Fire Rescue Chief Jim Linardos, who worked for years in the North Lake Tahoe area, said Central Texas faces some of the same wildfire risks as California, but lacks the fire prevention efforts and resources that help California firefighters immediately tackle blazes.
He wanted to add two engines to his five fire stations west of Austin this year, but instead was dealt a 12 percent budget cut.
“We needed air resources on this fire immediately,” Linardos said. “We had two helicopters we were sharing with other fires.”
They saved 300 homes, but lost 24.
He noted that Texas fire district funding is capped by the state at 10 cents per $100 valuation in property taxes. Linardos said that in Lake Tahoe, Nev., where he served as fire chief, he had five times the funding. State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, has proposed doubling the state funding cap.
Volunteer fire departments, which cover much of the state, have also faced a 75 percent state budget cut this year under Perry and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
When the Bastrop blaze erupted Sunday, residents relied on nine volunteer fire departments, each staffed by about 30 firefighters, some of whom ended up working 52 hours straight with no air support, said Mike Fisher, the county’s emergency management coordinator.
About 77 percent of the state’s fire departments are volunteer, and 86 percent of their firefighters help pay for their own equipment and gear, according to the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.
Lawmakers nearly doubled funding for volunteer departments to $25 million two years ago, then slashed it to $7 million this year.
“They weren’t about to say to the people, ‘Let’s raise taxes.’ That’s their future voters,” said Chris Barron, the association’s executive director.
But even if firefighters were fully funded, they would still probably be overwhelmed by the latest spate of wildfires, said Carlton Britton, a retired professor of range management specializing in fire ecology at Texas Tech.
He said Texas officials need to do more to encourage fire prevention, including clearing brush and making controlled burns in the state’s wooded suburbs.
“People think it’s beautiful, they just think they’re in tune with Mother Nature. And they are,” Britton said.
“But Mother Nature is going to kick their butt.”