Texas legislature proposes to cut wildfire budget by 30%

In the midst of the worst drought in decades which has led to over one million acres blackened by wildfires in their state this year, the Texas House and Senate have proposed budgets that would slash the funding of the Texas Forest Service’s Wildfire and Emergency Program by more than 30%.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Star-Telegram:

…Most of the cuts would translate into fewer grants for volunteer fire departments to buy new equipment, according to Robby DeWitt, the agency’s associate finance director.

Texas is one of the few states that relies primarily on volunteer fire departments to protect rural areas from wildfires.

DeWitt stressed that the agency would make sure the cuts don’t impact training of firefighters.

The Forest Service finds itself in a very different situation compared to 2008, when it was warning lawmakers that it was underfunded and that wildfires around the state were getting bigger and more destructive as a result. The Legislature responded by boosting the agency’s funding in 2009 by more than $15 million.

Now lawmakers are planning to cut the agency’s budget to close to its 2008 level.

That warning from three years ago came in a routine Legislative Appropriations Request that agencies file prior to each legislative session. The entire request is 102 pages but we’ve embedded the key pages below and highlighted some interesting passages regarding the agency’s request.

Yesterday, Gov. Rick Perry called on Texans to spend the next three days praying for rain to address the wildfires. We asked Perry’s office for the governor’s thoughts on the future of the Forest Service’s funding.

“We’re still working through the budget process, but the governor is committed to continuing to work with lawmakers in the House and Senate to craft a budget that prioritizes essential services, including public safety, without raising taxes,” spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

While it is fairly easy to see the problems with slashing the wildfire budget for the state, another issue is that many of the rural fire departments have little or no reliable funding and depend on bake sales, grants, or donations to buy fire trucks and personal protective equipment for the volunteers so that they can protect the state’s citizens. The result is fire departments and volunteer firefighters that attempt to put out fires with outdated fire apparatus and inadequate protective equipment for the firefighters. Yesterday the Texas Forest Service was begging for donations on Facebook, asking the public to donate to the state’s volunteer fire departments.

Much like the “no man’s land” incident in Washington state, many of the citizens in Texas have decided not to fund fire protection. They expect it to be provided for free. They have not established funding mechanisms for some rural fire protection districts and now they want to cut the budget for the state wildfire agency again.

The loss of homes and property from the Texas wildfires is indeed terrible. It probably would have been less severe if the people of Texas had not expected a free lunch. Of course the federal government, after a late request from Governor Rick Perry, is coming to partially bail them out with firefighters from 35 states and military air tankers.

Washington state Senate passes no man’s land bill

In a response to the controversies that followed the Dry Creek fire, which burned 49,000 acres and the Silver Dollar Restaurant in central Washington in August, 2009, the Washington state Senate has passed Engrossed Senate Bill 6462 which requires firefighters to take action on a fire even if it is outside their fire protection district, or in “no man’s land” as it has been called. Wildfire Today has written several times about this issue.

There was criticism after the fire that the landmark restaurant and some private property burned because no fire protection district was responsible for fire suppression in the area.

The bill also provides some protection from liability for firefighters working in no man’s land.

Here is the full text of the bill, minus the preamble verbiage, approved on Monday, which now heads to the House.


Washington state “no man’s land” continues to generate opinions

Wildfire Today has previously covered the issue of the 49,000-acre Dry Creek fire (here, here, and here) and the fact that it was not within any established fire protection district in eastern Washington. At a meeting on November 23 some local residents complained that suppression of the fire was compromised or delayed because the fire was not within any tax-supported fire district. (Map)

The Daily News, “serving the lower Columbia”, has weighed in with an editorial. Here is an excerpt.

…A few legislators at the November meeting indicated that they would offer a bill requiring firefighters to immediately engage fires outside their fire districts. Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, was one them. Chandler called it a “duty to serve” law, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Firefighters already recognize that duty and can be expected to make every effort to respond to emergency calls, regardless of fire district boundaries. There are valid concerns about liability and the expense of engaging out-of-district fires. If lawmakers want to make a contribution, they should address those concerns. But simply mandating that tax-supported fire districts ignore district boundaries is the wrong way to go.

We agree with those local fire officials who attended the November meeting and later expressed some misgivings about simply mandating that firefighters respond outside their districts, without allowing for concerns about cost and liability.

“I’m not in favor of a mandate that says we’ll fight fires in no man’s land no matter what,” Dave LaFave, chief of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue, told Daily News reporter Barbara LaBoe. “Because that puts all the burden on the folks (within the district) who are providing for all the service. The folks who live in no man’s land are basically gambling they don’t need service, but if they do then we’re called.”

Eric Koreis, chief of Castle Rock’s Fire District 6, told LaBoe that he could “understand legislation that directs people not to stand by when they see an emergency happening. But at the same time,” he added, “I think it’s a good opportunity to work on funding and the legality of the issues to keep it fair to people who live within the fire districts.”

Exactly. No one would advocate standing down in an emergency. But there must be some incentive for landowners to allow themselves to be annexed into a fire district or create their own fire district. Simply mandating away fire district boundaries is a very quick fix that, in reality, is no fix at all.

Protection of “no man’s land”–editorial

The issue of fire protection of private land between fire districts in eastern Washington continues to smolder following last summer’s Dry Creek fire. Several state lawmakers are threatening to introduce legislation that would require firefighters to fight fires regardless of whether it’s in their district or not, calling it a “duty to serve” law.

Here is an excerpt from an editorial in the Yakima-Herald:

While we understand the anger of those who felt firefighters didn’t provide enough assistance during the Dry Creek fire, we also realize the enormity of what firefighters have to deal with during a wildland fire. Communication among fire crews is difficult in these far-flung rural areas, with firefighters forced to work in deep ravines where cell phones and radios prove ineffective.

The unpredictability of these fires also makes fighting them extremely hazardous and frustrating. The [Silver Dollar cafe which burned in the fire] fell victim to a fire’s fickle nature. Though the cafe was used briefly as a staging area, firefighters had no proper equipment available when fire erupted suddenly and gutted the restaurant.

Liability and costs are legitimate concerns for rural fire districts. Providing firefighting services to those who wish to live in no man’s land is something lawmakers may seek to require, but the state also must offer adequate compensation for this “duty to serve.”

Residents can — and should — seek to be included in nearby fire districts or set up their own district.

Living in secluded rural areas has its benefits, and its costs. Wildland fires are a fact of life in these scrub-brush regions. It’s also equally certain that something more needs to be done. The status quo isn’t working for anyone.

What we don’t want is a repeat of Dry Creek.

Followup on protection of “no man’s land”

On November 15 Wildfire Today covered an issue in eastern Washington surrounding the Dry Creek fire, which burned 49,000 acres and the Silver Dollar Restaurant. The fire occurred in an area in which no jurisdiction had fire suppression responsibility. (Map)

A public meeting was held on November 23 at which numerous complaints were hurled at firefighters.

After the meeting, some state lawmakers said they expect to introduce legislation that would allow, or even REQUIRE, firefighters to fight fires wherever they can. Now THAT would be an interesting piece of legislation.

Here is an excerpt from the Yakima-Herald:


SUNNYSIDE — Firefighters told one man with a water tank he couldn’t proceed to his restaurant to protect it from approaching flames. It burned down.

No one stopped a man who drove down a smoke-covered highway, where he ran off the road and died of what was believed to be a heart attack.

Lawmakers heard these stories and others from angry residents complaining about contradictory orders, lack of action and jurisdictional concerns they blame for allowing two Aug. 20 lightning strike fires to grow into the destructive 49,000-acre wildland fire last August.

“If you’re not going to fight (the fire), get the hell out of there and let us,” said Paul Tilley, who lives near the intersections of State Routes 24 and 241, part of an area blackened by the Dry Creek fire complex that burned down the Silver Dollar Café and a state highway bridge.

Residents unloaded on firefighters who they said refused to help build fire lines because they weren’t authorized but then denied people access to do it themselves.

“Hope you got thick skins,” state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, told the dozen or so uniformed fire officials in the room.

Firefighters did not dispute many of the complaints, but they described a large, rapidly changing range fire complicated by spotty radio communication and jurisdictional problems.

All told, about 100 people attended the meeting at Snipes Mountain Brewery and Restaurant.

Lawmakers wanted to hear about fires in “no man’s land,” areas so remote they’re not part of a tax-supported protection district. Firefighters from neighboring districts often do not respond to these areas for fear of liability .

After the meeting, the lawmakers said they plan to introduce new legislation in 2010 to allow — perhaps even require — equipped firefighters fight fires wherever they can.

State Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, called it a “duty to serve” law.

Who protects “no man’s land”?

A controversy has been brewing in eastern Washington since August 20 when lightning started the Dry Creek fire which eventually burned 49,000 acres and the Silver Dollar Restaurant. The problem is that the area was not on public land and it was outside the tax-supported fire districts.

When the fire started, the neighboring fire departments were busy with their own fires and could not risk depleting their forces to fight a fire that apparently was no one’s responsibility. It was burning in a remote area of eastern Washington, north of Sunnyside and east of Yakima near the intersection of highways 24 and 241. (Map)

Some of the issues include, who pays, liability, adequate resources to fight the fire while still protecting other areas, and even the “ethics” of firefighters fighting whatever fire they see.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Yakima Herald:

Silver Dollar [restaurant] owners told the Yakima Herald-Republic in August that firefighters ate lunch in their restaurant shortly before flames consumed it.

The owners, Rick and Martha Lounsbury of Terrace Heights, declined comment for this story but said they plan to attend the upcoming meeting. They have applied for Yakima County permits to rebuild.

Others say property owners tried to fight the fire with their own water trucks but firefighters denied them access.

Benton Rural Electric Association general manager Chuck Dawsey has some of the most stern criticism. Dawsey said his agency lost 16 power poles, at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000, while firefighters watched from their trucks.

He said his own crews wanted to attack the flames but firefighters would not allow them through. The REA sometimes uses a 1-ton pickup with a water tank for protecting poles and equipment from fires.

Some of those crew members will be at the Nov. 23 meeting, Dawsey said. He added that because of the downed poles, about four homes on private wells lost power, leaving them without electricity for their pumps.

Dawsey calls it an ethical issue: If you can help somebody, you should — regardless of liability or jurisdiction, he said.

“My cause is to find a way to allow people … to do the right thing,” he said.

Brian Vogel, chief of the Lower Valley Fire District 5, said ethics are irrelevant in no man’s land.

“Unfortunately, ethics and morals don’t keep you out of court when something goes wrong,” Vogel said.

His firefighters owe their allegiance to the residents paying taxes in their district. He likens fighting somebody else’s fire to mowing a neighbor’s yard.

He also disagreed with the notion that firefighters should fight whatever fire they see. Many wildland firefighters aren’t trained in fighting structure fires, and fire is never predictable. Fighters have been killed protecting power poles, “as simple as it sounds,” he said. He said people who live in no man’s land chose the risk that comes with it.

“The farther out you get from civilization, the farther out you get from those services that civilization provides,” he said.

Thanks Dick