Perry Urges Prayer as Texas Burns

As of today, over 1.4 million acres in the state of Texas have been ravaged by fire.

Yesterday Texas Forest Service responded to 4 new fires for 1,005 acres, including a 1,000 acre fire in Deaf Smith County. The following fires have been contained: CR 4600 (Tyler Co., 130 acres), Encino (Tom Green Co.,12,659 acres), Hickman (Midland Co., 16,500 acres), Frying Pan Ranch (Andrews Co., 80,907 acres), Cannon(Pecos Co., 9,248 acres), DRH (Pecos Co., 26,284 acres), Little Smokey (Pecos Co., 27,895 acres), and Yates Field(Pecos Co., 300 acres). Since January 1st, Texas Forest Service has responded to fires that have burned more than 1.4 million acres.

If you include the fires fought by local fire departments, the number jumps to 1,821,086 acres burned since the first of the year.

And the situation is dire.  Record drought conditions and wind have combined to form a perfect breeding ground for wildfires.  From the U.S. Drought Monitor:

[April 19, 2011] In Oklahoma and Texas, there was a slight alleviation of Extreme (D3) and Severe (D2) drought conditions in the south-central to southeast Oklahoma – northeast Texas area.  Over much of the remaining region, however, drought conditions maintained or intensified.  The Oklahoma panhandle and nearby locations in northern Texas, southeast Colorado, and southwest Kansas saw the introduction of Extreme Drought (D3).  Further, conditions along the Texas Gulf Coast and into the Louisiana Gulf Coast intensified with one category degradation over select areas.  In north-central Texas, while conditions did not change appreciably, strong impacts are being felt.  High temperatures combined with no precipitation and high winds have led to widespread wildfires.  Unless precipitation comes in to the area soon, conditions are likely to become exceptional.  Conditions in south-central and southwest Texas saw drought intensify as well.  Another area of Exceptional Drought (D4) was introduced in that area.

Tragically, two firefighters have lost their lives battling the fires and the number of homes and other structures destroyed is mounting.

Meanwhile, Governor Perry has urged Texans to pray for rain in a recently issued official proclamation:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.

As someone who likes to keep the government out of religion and religion out of government, I’ll admit my eyebrow goes up when I read something like this.  I also believe that, ultimately, it’s just another opportunity to pander to the evangelical right wing.  That said, if someone wants to pray for the end of the wildfires and the merciless, sweeping, devastation they are causing, far be it for me to tell them otherwise.  Although I feel that the effort is useless, it certainly won’t hurt anything and may give people who are upset and frustrated by the situation an opportunity to feel like they are contributing which is beneficial in its own right.

I cannot help but think that the destruction may have been better contained in some areas had the volunteer fire departments been better funded.  While I am not blaming Perry and Texas Republicans for these fires, I am blaming them for being shortsighted and hypocritical in slashing firefighting funding to less than a quarter of its already insufficient budget:

State funding for volunteer fire departments is taking a big hit. It is going from $30 million to $7 million. Those departments are already facing financial strains. The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas represents 21,000 state firefighters. The Association says more than 80 percent of volunteer firefighters are reporting taking a personal hit in the budget crisis. They have started using their own money to help pay for equipment and supplies.

“We’ve seen budget cuts, but this is the worst time that we’ve ever seen,” said Executive Director Chris Barron. “As far as the budget crisis and the fuel cost stuff for example continues to go up and it doesn’t help us out any whatsoever, so with the rising fuel and the budget cuts from the state it’s taken a great effect. I think the citizens and the public is going to see that.”

Most of the State of Texas is protected by volunteer departments. There are 879 volunteer departments compared to 114 paid departments and 187 departments that are a combination of both paid and volunteer firefighters.

These fires are neither a Republican nor a Democratic event – they are a natural disaster brought to us courtesy of ideal natural conditions.  And I know ALL citizens value our firefighters and the work they do.  However, it is beyond baffling – incomprehensible – to me, that Republicans would knowingly vote to de-fund fire protection on behalf of the citizens of Texas.  Even if the wildfires were not currently raging across the state, I would still be disgusted by this incredibly shortsighted act.

The people of Texas rely on volunteer firefighters:

The majority of the state of Texas is protected by volunteer firefighters with over 800 departments in comparison to the 114 paid departments.

Further, although their staff is devoted to helping, volunteer fire departments are seriously underfunded and understaffed to begin with:

Volunteer fire departments face struggles with funding, recruiting and in some cases, insurance benefits to protect their staff. “If we don’t do it, whose going to?” Said West Carlisle Fire Chief Tim Smith. “Our families live out there. Fire can’t burn unchecked,” Smith continued.

Volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, and at any moment they could be called to battle a fire. “Ben Franklin was a volunteer firefighter. It’s nothing new to volunteer, but what we see is a decline in volunteerism,” Smith said.

A decline in volunteers begs the question: Would you risk your life for $5?“

We get paid $5.00 a call, and at the end of the year they give us one check for the total,” Wolfforth firefighter Lance Hamilton said.

Volunteers are also not given the same benefits as city employees when it comes to insurance. “Most of them have workman’s comp, but that’s about all they have,” Hamilton explained.“Fire is an inherently dangerous animal, and the thing we have to rely on is our training,” Smith said. But training can’t happen without funding and time.

I got this email forward a while back:

A man was trapped by the rising waters of a flood. A fellow came over in a rowboat and called to the man, “Jump into my boat! I’ll save you!”

The stranded man refused, saying, “No – God will save me!”

The water rose to the man’s knees, and along came a rescuer in a motorboat. “Get in! I’ll save you!”

“No!” the man on the roof replied. “God will save me!”

Soon after, the water was up to the man’s chest. Now came a helicopter.

“Grab onto the rope!” called the pilot, “I’ll pull you up and save you!”

As the man called, “No, God will save me!” a wave swept him off the roof and he drowned.

As he entered heaven, God greeted him, saying, “Welcome to heaven! Do you have any questions?”

“I do have one question.” the man replied. “There I was, stranded on my roof, with flood waters rising all around me! Why didn’t you save me?”

“Well!” replied God. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

I am not religious, but I have always been taught that “God helps he who helps himself.”  That is, you can’t sit back and expect that a miracle is going to happen – that some sort of magical force will save the day when you ignore the science, the technology, the knowledge, or the tools that you already have at your disposal.  Folks, our 800 volunteer fire departments (and 114 paid departments) ARE our boats and helicopter.

So my message to Perry and the Republican-run state legislature is this: Don’t endanger the people of this state even further by taking away what little funding exists for the volunteer firefighters we all rely on.  It’s not worth the massive expense, the vast amounts property damage, or the lives needlessly lost.  While prayer might make people feel better, it isn’t going to fix the situation. Instead of just praying for help, you must consider properly funding the tools necessary to better arm ourselves should a situation like this ever happen again.  Amen.

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