AUSTIN, Tex (Reuters) - Texas lawmakers are set to slash funding for the agency responsible for fighting wildfires in the midst of a historic wildfire season in which some 2.5 million acres have burned.
The Texas Forest Service faces almost $34 million in budget cuts over the next two years, roughly a third of the agency's total budget. The cuts are in both the House and Senate versions of the proposed state budget.
The Forest Service has about 200 firefighters and offers assistance grants to volunteer fire departments. Assistance grants are likely to take the biggest hit.
Volunteers -- two of whom were killed in fighting this year's fires -- make up nearly 80 percent of the state's fire-fighting force and are first responders to roughly 90 percent of wildfires in Texas.
"Volunteer programs are our No. 1 defense," Forest Service Director Tom Boggus told Reuters.
Since 2002, the Forest Service has given out $153 million in grants, which have paid for 44,000 sets of protective clothing, 1,200 fire engines and funded the training of about 34,000 firefighters.
A state commission that reviewed the Forest Service this year noted the grants were not distributed to the counties most at risk for wildfires. Boggus said that is because the service only recently conducted a study to determine which counties are the most at-risk, and that the agency now plans to distribute grants based on that information.
Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association, said volunteer fire departments rely heavily on grant funding. He said $135 million in requests are backlogged from volunteer fire departments.
"That alone should say that the departments out there greatly need the funding," he told Reuters.
"Stuff in the fire service is not cheap," Barron added.
He said many volunteer fire departments already have worn-down equipment and without funding for new equipment, response times will almost certainly increase.
Barron also works for a volunteer fire department in South Austin that sent a truck to West Texas to battle the Rock House fire that burned more than 200,000 acres last month. He said the truck needed repairs after the trip, which wasn't unusual.
"It's just the wear and tear of fire departments trying to help each other out," Barron said.
But Texas, which has a two-year budget cycle, has a shortfall of up to $27 billion for 2012-2013. Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said everybody should share in the cuts.
"We understand the difficulty they have had in dealing with almost unprecedented numbers of fires this year," said Heflin, a former state representative. "We also understand that in order to balance the budget, everybody needs to endure some reductions."
Heflin told Reuters there are discretionary funds in the governor's office for emergencies which could be used to help fight wildfires.
"We feel they'll be able to handle whatever's thrown at them," he said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)
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