AUSTIN, Texas -- Budget cuts that have reduced annual state grants for volunteer firefighters by almost three-fourths since 2009 had "a huge impact" on authorities' ability to fight last year's record-setting wave of wildfires, the director of the Texas Forest Service told lawmakers Tuesday.
Testifying before the Texas Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, Tom Boggus said yearly grants to volunteer firefighters have fallen from $25 million as recently as the 2009 state budget cycle to $7 million today.
"It's a huge impact," he said, adding that volunteers, "are the backbone. They're the first line of defense."
While their ranks are highly fluid due to heavy turnover, Texas has about 35,000 volunteer firefighters who respond to most wildfires, Boggus said.
"They're there every time that there's smoke in the air," he said.
When pressed by senators about the effects of the loss of funding, Boggus said authorities have ensured that state money for training and protective gear for volunteers has remained stable. They've absorbed the budget cuts by cutting back on equipment - which can even mean things like replacing worn tires on fire trucks.
He said despite the cutbacks, 41,000 volunteers have been sent to training sessions and officials have provided nearly 58,000 sets of protective gear.
"That's what we must maintain," Boggus said. "Because they've got to be trained and they've got to be safe."
Some 26,000 fires across Texas since December 2010 have burned more than 3.9 million acres.
The wildfires that devastated the city of Bastrop, southeast of Austin, and the surrounding county of the same name, were the costliest in Texas history, destroying 1,673 homes and charring 33,000 acres. Boggus said Tuesday that the wildfire is now considered the third worst in U.S. history.
Sen. Tommy Williams, the committee's chairman, asked the Forest Service and Texas National Guard to prepare lists of the equipment and training needed to cope with the coming wildfire season.
"Even though budget times are pretty tight, protecting the public is a high priority," said Williams, R-The Woodlands, "and we want to make sure you have what you need to go forward."
Major Gen. John Nichols of the Texas National Guard told the committee his forces have aided firefighters by dumping nearly 5 million gallons of water from the air on wildfires statewide since January 2011 and cutting about 162 miles of firebreaks on the ground to help stop fires from spreading.
But he said the flight training to fight fires and drive bulldozers and conduct other ground activities to clear brush was financed by "fallout money," or federal funds leftover from those provided to the National Guard for military training.
Williams dubbed that, "scabbing off federal funding" and suggested state lawmakers could do more to ensure Texas money is available to the Guard for better wildfire training and equipment.