Out of the Capitol, into the fire

Samian Quazi

Last week’s fires in Bastrop and other parts of Texas rank among the most destructive in our state’s history. The conflagration also laid bare the humiliating results of the Capitol’s conservative economic policies.

At least two lives and 1,700 homes were destroyed last week in a year of unrelenting drought and devastation. Ash remains of the most recent fires added to the grim total of 3.67 million acres of scorched Texas land this year. And the faint hope that a tropical storm would usher in rainfall as respite never materialized. Instead, Lee carried prevailing winds that exacerbated drought conditions and triggered more than 60 fires statewide.

The online U.S. Drought Monitor system makes the magnitude of our state’s parched status clear. The site features a U.S. map and colors in regions by the severity of the drought conditions. Texas sticks out awash in a violently striking maroon hue that indicates “exceptional drought,” the highest intensity on the scale. The map’s myriad animations and archives indicate that the hue has persisted unabated for the past several months.

One may logically concur that such a critical stage of drought for such an extended period of time would have given the Capitol ample opportunity to prepare for an impending disaster. In late April, our ostensibly devout Gov. Rick Perry declared a three-day period for “Days of Prayer for Rain,” asking our invocations to the Almighty for relief. There’s nothing wrong with prayer, but surely the state government took proactive measures of their own to stanch the eruption of more fires.

Yet even back in late April, it had become increasingly clear that the state’s pertinent disaster-management services were in the red. At the time, the Texas Forest Service had already accumulated $36.3 million in debts owed to firefighting costs, and of that $23.8 million was due to Uncle Sam for Washington’s air support in eradicating flames, according to MSNBC.

In fairness, state leaders didn’t start the fires, and it would be baseless to argue man’s culpability in a purely natural set of disasters. The state’s mammoth geography and associated diversity of biomes ensures a reality where nature will always conspire against us. But at the very least, Texans should deduce that such frequency of natural disasters would mean our elected officials treat emergency preparedness with necessary gravity.

The state instead moved the opposite direction when Republicans unceremoniously slashed millions from the Forest Service’s budget. According to The Huffington Post , the 82nd Legislature cut the agency’s funding from $117.7 million to $83 million. State support for volunteer firefighters was also reduced during the session from $30 million per year to $13.5 million per year.

As honorable as their life-saving duties are, emergency first-responders, firefighters and air-support crew don’t strictly work for charity. None of the fiscal relief in last week’s fires came out of thin air. And unless God decides to belatedly answer Perry’s prayers and seriously curtails Texas wildfires through 2013, it’s highly improbable Texas will have the financial wherewithal to deal with more of these disasters.

It is thus the federal government — the sworn enemy of self-proclaimed spendthrift conservatives everywhere — that is left writing the checks for our state’s latest fires. To his credit, President Barack Obama signed a major disaster declaration for Texas, quickly freeing up millions in FEMA-based emergency aid to reimburse local authorities, homes and businesses in fire-related losses.

Perry failed to see the irony in his supplications for federal help. The same character who audaciously declared in 2009 that Texas could secede from the United States if Washington “continues to thumb their nose at the American people” broadcast his plea for help from the federal government on Twitter. On Sept. 7, he tweeted, “Pushing for more federal assets (dozers/bladed equipment) to cut fire guards”.

Other states have begun to notice that Texas conservatives’ swagger at financial independence from the federal trough is entirely illusory. The Los Angeles Times noted, somewhat sardonically, that California-based firefighters and equipment were being sent to Texas for relief efforts. Recall that conservatives wasted no effort in peddling the idea that California’s economy has withered to Texas’ benefit.

I lived in New Orleans several months after Hurricane Katrina, and I recall the harrowing scenes of loss and government incompetence at its worst. But I’ve become increasingly convinced that disasters happen due to a lack of governance, not in spite of it.

Conservative mythologizing has perpetuated the immature belief of man’s triumphal dominance over the elements, unhindered by the need for federal assistance. But it’s all a numbers game that harbors no shame in biting the hand that feeds it during crises. Humility and responsible taxation are keys to real Texan independence when it comes to disaster management.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.