Bloomberg News

Texas Seeks Federal Aid to Reduce Cost of Fighting Wildfires

October 17, 2011

(Adds Perry spokeswoman’s comment in sixth paragraph.)

Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Texas, where Governor Rick Perry has used his position to slam deficit spending, is seeking more than $200 million from the U.S. government to help cover the costs of fighting wildfires this year.

The state has spent $304 million to put out brush fires amid a record drought and expects reimbursement for about three quarters of that, W. Nim Kidd, assistant director of emergency management in the Public Safety Department, said today at a hearing in Austin. U.S. officials are working to speed the payments, Tony Russell, the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s regional administrator, said at the hearing.

“We can’t complain about the federal government and say there’s no role, but when it affects us directly” say we need it, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, said at the hearing organized by Representative Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican. Republicans including McCaul voted for a funding bill this year that cut spending on state and local programs by 70 percent from fiscal 2010, Cuellar said.

McCaul said the House of Representatives passed a short- term funding bill for the agency, which he supported.

Kidd and Russell said at the hearing called to examine the federal response the U.S. wasted no time in helping the state fight fires that destroyed almost 2,900 homes. Perry, a Republican running for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama at the polls next year, has complained since May about delays in aid as fires burned about 3.8 million acres in Texas.

Effective Cooperation

“It’s not uncommon for a state to request emergency funds,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry. “When Texans have been affected by the extremely dangerous wildfires like we’ve experienced, we expect the federal government to help get them back on their feet.”

Perry remains critical of federal agencies for moving too slowly in responding to requests for help in putting out the fires, Nashed said.

“We heard today that that FEMA has worked effectively with the state in addressing this disaster,” Cuellar said in an interview after the hearing, organized by Representative Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican. “Now we’re working on getting the state paid back for its costs.”

A fire-fighting McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 jet aircraft under federal control should have been moved to help in Bastrop County, 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Austin, McCaul said at the hearing. About 1,500 homes were destroyed by fires in the area last month.

Fire Warnings

“Despite all the warnings that Texas faced with it being the driest summer in more than 100 years, there was no prepositioned aircraft to help,” McCaul said at the hearing. “We should have had more assets prepositioned.”

The plane was deployed against California wildfires before it headed for Texas, Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service director of fire and aviation management, said in response. Federal officials had three large air tankers, three water- scooping models and 15 single-engine tankers, 11 “attack” airplanes and 12 helicopters in Texas on Sept. 2, before the Bastrop fires started, he said.

The Bastrop fire caused as much as $371 million in damage in the central Texas region, or about 12 percent of total value in the Bastrop County Appraisal District, Standard & Poor’s said in an Oct. 7 report. No immediate change in credit ratings for Bastrop-area debt issuers is warranted, according to S&P.

--Editors: Ted Bunker, Stephen Merelman.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Mildenberg in Austin at dmildenberg@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net;


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