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In Texas, no love for volunteer fire departments 


click to enlarge bastrop_wildfire-09.05.2011-img_0815jpg
As our Fed Up!, regulatin'-hatin' governor hits his first GOP presidential debate, Rick Perry's state is burning, and has been for much of the past week. Granted, with wildfires scorching thousands of acres, claiming at least two lives and destroying hundreds of homes, Perry left the trail Monday to come home and assess the damage. For a vet campaigner like Perry, it's been a priceless opportunity to flash his commander-in-chief bona fides – picture images of a solemn Perry surveying the charred landscape out the window of a chopper, empathizing with evacuees and cheering the state's volunteer firefighters keeping the flames at bay. Did we say volunteer firefighters? Oh, yeah. Screw those guys. At least, that's the message from the Perry-inspired slash-and-burn budget churned out by the Legislature this year, which largely cuts the legs out from under the state's volunteer fire crews. This session, Perry et al opted to cut the Texas Forest Service budget by roughly a third over the next biennium. While the Forest Service digs for more money as it fights off the current disaster — the supplemental spending bill passed this year wasn't enough to float the agency through the first of the month — it's likely federal cash will start flowing as FEMA starts to approve grants to help pay for eligible reimbursements. And if that's not enough, Perry has said he is willing to shell out rainy-day cash to help cover natural disasters. But on the response side, during and after this disaster, it will be the volunteer firefighters who get the short end of the stick, says Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association. Volunteer departments make up roughly 80 percent of the state's fire crews and are first responders to roughly 90 percent of Texas wildfires every year. The money cut from the Forest Service? Well, Barron says, the biggest blow was to reimbursement grants for volunteer fire departments, which pay for things like fueling up trucks and purchasing protective equipment for cash-strapped crews. Those grants got cut from about $30 million down to $7 million, Barron says. “Unfortunately, there's really not a whole lot out there for these crews in the state of Texas,” he said. "A lot of these guys need equipment right now, they need funding right now.” Barron said that a backlog in reimbursements, estimated in the millions, has already kept crews waiting in line for months. That leaves the majority of our state's fire crews with some very tough choices. “I know a lot of these guys are taking money out of their own pocket books just to keep the departments open. Some will eventually have to shut their doors,” he said. “I know so many of these guys that are already feeling the effects. I was just printing out some photos today that show firefighters having to work without the proper protective equipment." So, in Rick Perry's Texas, it's alright to take federal dollars in times of legitimate environmental disaster. Just don't pay for the local volunteers who help keep those disasters from happening every day.

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