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Texas Lawmaker Says FEMA Fire Denial Hurts State

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A bull tries to escape a running wildfire on April 19, 2011 in Graford, Texas. (credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

A bull tries to escape a running wildfire on April 19, 2011 in Graford, Texas. (credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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FORT WORTH (AP) - A U.S. House member from West Texas says he was “deeply troubled” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s refusal to declare virtually all of Texas a major disaster area.

“Without federal assistance, these communities will suffer immense challenges and obstacles as they attempt to rebuild and recover from this disaster,” U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said in a statement the day after FEMA’s decision.

FEMA’s decision will add pressure on the cash-strapped state to help residents and towns recover from devastating wildfires, the Midland Republican said. He said some counties have been forced to spend nearly a decade’s worth of reserves to keep battling blazes.

Since the fire season began in November, some 9,200 wildfires have scorched about 2.3 million acres and destroyed 400 homes, according to the Texas Forest Service.

But Texas does not need more federal assistance through a disaster declaration because FEMA has already approved 25 fire management assistance grants, said agency spokeswoman Rachel Racusen. Each grant reimburses 75 percent of the state’s costs specifically for equipment, firefighters’ meals and other emergency response work — and the disaster declaration denial doesn’t preclude FEMA from awarding more grants.

Gov. Rick Perry said the FEMA grants will help with only a small percentage of the fires. He said the state is considering whether to appeal the denial of the disaster declaration, which would provide a wide range of federal assistance for residents and public infrastructure. It would pay for 75 percent of the total firefighting expenses incurred by the state — not just the emergency response work.

Texas faces a $3.9 billion deficit in the current budget. Legislation is pending that would fill that hole with $3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, and $1 billion in additional cuts.

The Texas Forest Service is over budget because of the devastating wildfire season and still owes about $22 million from last year’s fires, although FEMA’s fire management assistance grants are expected to cover about $20.5 million of those costs, said Don Galloway, a planning and policy analyst for the agency. It will ask for at least $65 million in an emergency appropriations bill, he said.

“We’ve been spending about a million dollars a day in the last few weeks, and fires are still going on, so that number will probably increase,” he said.

The state will have to reallocate that money — estimated by some at $70 million — that it was going to spend elsewhere to pay that bill. Last week Perry’s spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said without the federal assistance, “we’re going to have to get pretty creative.”

No residents have been killed in the Texas blazes, but two firefighters died in separate incidents in April. Elias Macias Jaquez, who volunteered with the Cactus department, suffered severe burns. Gregory Mack Simmons, an Eastland firefighter, was killed after apparently being hit by a vehicle after battling a blaze in a smoke-filled area.

In March 2008, FEMA granted an emergency declaration after Texas appealed a denial of a request for major disaster assistance.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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