Texas has had a terrible fire season. The state has been in a multi-year draught, and this year set a record for low rainfall. Another unwanted record was in heat, in which Texas had the highest average daily temperature through the summer of any state ever recorded.
This summer was the hottest and driest Texas summer since 1895, when data began to be collected. Extremely dry vegetation plus extremely high temperatures, as we all know too well, lead to fires. Texas has had lots of them this season — over 20,000 — and big ones. The most recent big one began on the Labor Day weekend in Bastrop County, east of Austin, and burned over 1,600 homes.
Texas has a smaller version of our CAL FIRE, called the Texas Forest Service. The state mostly relies on local volunteer fire departments to handle fires that burn outside of municipalities. One might think that given the long drought affecting the state, the Texas Forest Service would be well-funded, but that would be wrong. The Texas Forest Service, already without adequate funds for its job, had its budget cut by 29 percent ($34 million) earlier this year.
But whether key fire agencies are adequately funded or not, money will be spent to protect lives and property. Not having nearly the resources to handle the fires, Texas, like all states, brings in firefighters and equipment from other states and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service. (Many of our local Forest Service firefighters have fought fires in Texas this year.) This outside help does not come for free, as mutual aid agreements lay out a process for reimbursing costs to out-of-state agencies.
Texas is probably not the only state to underfund its firefighters this year. Almost all state budgets are under severe stress because of the flat economy and the collapse of housing. Yet underfunding fire agencies makes little sense when: 1) You are almost certain there will be fires, and 2) You will pay more than you would have if you had the right funding before the firefighting takes place.
I understand the bind politicians are in. They need to balance budgets and there is a steep political price to pay if they try to raise taxes. There is always a chance the big fires won’t happen. If they do, no one will give them a hard time about paying whatever they have to for suppression.
In addition, prevention efforts, which are clearly cost-effective, suffer the political problems of all prevention (think health) — it’s easier to justify money to handle an obvious disaster than money spent that prevents it
from happening in the first place. What doesn’t happen is never as dramatic as what does happen.
Underfunding fire agencies, like underfunding public health, is understandable, but it is still a mistake.
Fires will burn, just as microbes will spread, and it is really not fiscally prudent to simply pretend that government will not need to play the central role in handling the crisis, or need not play the central role in shaping systems to prevent a crisis in the first place.
It is very likely that Texas could have prevented significant fire damage if it had had more personnel and equipment during this fire season. Cutting the fire budget did not save Texas money. Short-term thrift can be very expensive.