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Wildfire protection plan half-funded in Texas
Updated 9/15/2011 9:34 AM ET
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Long before this month's historic wildfires in Texas, the state's forest service came up with a $20.4 million plan to stop the flames from starting or tamp them out before small blazes grew deadly and destructive.

Three years later, the plan is still only half-funded — a result of the weak economy, a strained state budget and what one former lawmaker calls a "dereliction of duty" by legislators who almost always prefer to spend money only after a crisis has unfolded.

In 2008, the Texas Forest Service made an insistent sales pitch for an ambitious wildfire protection plan that called for adding more than 200 firefighters, creating rapid-response teams to quash small flare-ups, building advanced automated weather stations and establishing two training academies for wildfire crews.

STORY: Texas fire destroys 1,554 homes; 17 people missing

"We cannot over-emphasize the protection aspects of this plan," officials wrote in their request for money. When fully funded and implemented, the program was "guaranteed to protect lives and properties."

The idea for the plan dated to 1999. But over nearly a decade of steadily worsening fires, the budget request acquired a sense of urgency. By 2008, it declared: "This is the final straw! Bigger fires call for bigger state resources!"

The Forest Service concedes that even the full fire-protection system would not have completely spared Texas from last week's catastrophic fires, which incinerated more than 1,700 homes, blackened tens of thousands of acres and killed four people.

"There's no way we'll ever be staffed to handle the worst-case, catastrophic events like you've seen recently," said Robbie DeWitt, chief financial officer of the Forest Service.

But the plan was designed to limit exactly those types of widespread losses — and at a fraction of the price of fighting full-blown fires.

Forest Service officials say they harbor no ill will toward lawmakers. It was the agency's own idea to increase funding only incrementally given economic realities.

Still, at least one critic says the decision to leave the plan only partially funded reflects lawmakers' reluctance to make big investments to prevent emergencies.

Former Republican state Rep. David Swinford used to represent the Panhandle, which in 2006 endured the deadliest wildfire on record in Texas, a blaze that killed 12 people and scorched more than a million acres.

After the flames were out, Swinford worked to increase funding for the wildfire plan and for volunteer fire departments through a tax on insurance companies. He said the state relies on a "crisis management" attitude that leans too heavily on paying for firefighting efforts after the fact.

"The dereliction of duty is the state not putting money in that program," he said. "I got tired of watching it."

Once a fire takes hold, the flames and the costs can quickly spread out of control. The federal government pays some of the expenses, but this past summer the Forest Service needed an infusion of $121 million from the state.

With an additional $8.5 million the state put toward the fire-protection plan in 2010, about 60 firefighters were hired. The Forest Service also bought heavy equipment such as bulldozers, opened nine new offices in high-risk fire areas and paid for some firefighter training.

Still, the annual funding for the program is about $12 million less than what the Forest Service considers necessary, according to the budget request and other documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

Texas is not the only state where firefighting efforts have been pinched by tight budgets.

Amid California's financial crisis, the budget for fire prevention and suppression has been cut about 10 percent this year, including a $2 million reduction that would have been used to hire 21 inspectors dedicated to preventing wildfires, said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Texas, the Forest Service's 2008 budget request outlined the human and financial costs of the devastating 2005-2006 fire season: 19 deaths and $643 million in property damage. The agency seemed to anticipate steadily worsening fires.

"Extreme wildfire behavior as we've experienced over the last decade is what we can continue to expect," the Forest Service warned.

Because Texas is locked in a 25- to 30-year dry period, "even with occasional rain events, we can expect a long-term situation with an increase in the number and severity of wildfires, perhaps unlike anything we've seen in Texas," the agency said.

According to the budget request, $20.4 million annually would be required to fund the program adequately. However, the agency said it would accept an "incremental approach" that would raise the amount of money slowly over several years.

The wildfire protection plan was also reviewed last year by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically assesses state agencies.

The commission took no position on whether the funding was adequate, but it noted that the Legislature had invested "significant" money to finance wildfire protection even though the Forest Service's plan was limited to a brochure and "miscellaneous documents."

DeWitt said the Forest Service was happy to get an added $8.5 million for wildfire protection in 2009, raising annual funding to $15.5 million. The agency's budget was slashed by $35 million earlier this year, and it did not ask for more because of the intense battle for every dollar in the state budget, he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Posted 9/14/2011 3:53 PM ET
Updated 9/15/2011 9:34 AM ET
Firefighters look for flames to extinguish Sunday during a wildfire near Mixon, Texas.
By Sarah A. Miller, AP
Firefighters look for flames to extinguish Sunday during a wildfire near Mixon, Texas.