HOUSTON (AP) — The Texas agency responsible for fighting wildfires has asked the state Legislature for an additional $27.2 million to hire about 90 more firefighters and buy equipment as a rapidly growing population coupled with drought has increased the threat of devastating fires.
The Texas A&M Forest Service also asked the state to restore nearly $35 million in grant money to help train, equip and insure volunteer fire departments. That money was cut during the last legislative session in 2011, also the year of one of the worst and most expensive wildfire seasons in state history. The cost that year was more than $300 million.
The House has recommended providing the agency with the same level of funding it received for 2012-13, which is less than half of what it requested. The Senate has proposed providing at least the additional $27.2 million the service says it needs to expand. The final bill will likely look vastly different from both proposals.
"It would concern me very greatly if they don't get those funds," said Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, a Republican whose district includes Bastrop, where fire destroyed more than 1,700 homes, incinerated tens of thousands of acres and killed four people in 2011.
"We still are in the drought pattern. That means we're still going to have an increased number of wildfires to deal with. It's just going to take increased personnel, more equipment and more money to deal with those fires," said Kleinschmidt, adding he is optimistic the agency will get more money to meet the need.
Robby DeWitt, associate director for finance and administration at the Texas A&M Forest Service, said the agency is hoping that with additional funding it will be able to rely less on out-of-state crews to fight wildfires. For example, the agency spent $44.6 million for out-of-state engines, or an average of about $2,191 per day, during the wildfire season that began in November 2010 and ended in October 2011. It costs about $882 per day to operate a forest service engine, including salaries and fuel.
"They have to get here, get equipment here and have to return from where they came from," DeWitt said, explaining the disparity in costs. "When you have a long fire season like we had in 2011, you have to use resources from all over the country."
The agency also wants to begin funding more than $131 million in outstanding grant requests from volunteer fire departments that need help buying equipment.
Wildfires in Texas have been getting worse during the past 20 years, with 10 of the most significant seasons occurring during the last 15 years, and it's not expected to improve.
"The combination of the drought period that we're in and the population growth and the development of property that used to be rural around major urban areas ... the changing use of land are all factors that affect risk for wildfires in the future," DeWitt said.
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP