Texas wildfires foreshadow potentially tragic effects of state budget cuts

As thousands of Texas residents are being allowed to return to their fire-ravaged neighborhoods in Bastrop County this week, it might be time to reexamine steep cuts to firefighting funding.

On Monday, when many residents were allowed home to survey the damage, the Bastrop County fire had been blamed for two deaths, burned more than 34,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 homes , CNN reported.

It is only the latest devastation in what the network dubbed “one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory, ” citing that nearly 3.7 million of the state’s 167.5 million acres have burned in 19,896 fires since January 1.

That means that in less than a year, more than 2 percent of the entire state has been charred, and with the state experiencing an ongoing drought, its logical that more fires could follow.

But as of Sept. 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year, Texas’ volunteer fire departments will see state grant funding that they rely on slashed by a third, with the funding down to $7 million compared to $23 million last year, according to an ABC News report.

State officials told ABC that the budget cuts would not be felt for months since the funding is awarded through a grant process. But many of the volunteer departments, which represent nearly 80% of fire departments statewide, are already strapped for cash.

 “With the historic wildfire season we’ve had this year, even without the budget cuts, the need for funding for volunteer firefighters would still be great,” said Kelsey Coleman, of The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Assn. “Many volunteers are filling up fire trucks on their own credit card and buying day-to-day supplies like water,” Coleman said.

Now, obviously in the current economic climate, state budgets have to be cut somewhere. And in many cases, public safety operations — fueled by overtime and higher retirement-related costs — represent a lion share of budgets. Reasonable cuts can, and should, be made. Take, for example,

But in this case — slashing fire budgets during a raging wildfire season– the timing just seems bad.

And with Texas Governor and Republican Presidential front-runner Rick Perry, who signed off on the budget cuts, in the thick of campaigning, it seems like the kind of controversy he should want to avoid.

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