(Oklahoma City) A pair of State Senators offered support Tuesday for Oklahoma Department of Agricultures plan to provide state assistance to help rural fire departments pay the costs of fighting the rash of wildfires that swept across the state in recent weeks.
Secretary of Agriculture Terry Peach announced the plan Tuesday.
Senate Assistant Majority Floor Leader Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Daisy Lawler, D-Comanche, said even fire departments in line to receive federal assistance to off-set the costs of fighting the blazes that burned more than 50,000 acres in the state are still facing large unexpected costs from their efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Administration will only pay 75 percent of the costs.
On Friday, Lawler and Rabon said the state needed to come up with money with which to reimburse the affected rural fire departments.
We should act quickly to make these fire departments whole. Our mostly volunteer rural firefighters are our front line of defense against natural disasters in Oklahoma. Their response to the wildfires across our state in recent weeks has been nothing short of heroic. We cant leave them to pay for their hard work and dedication with pie suppers and bake sales. Our state has a responsibility to these departments and we should meet that responsibility, Lawler said.
The Senator said state officials dont yet know the total cost of fighting the fires, but expect to have those numbers soon.
Rabon said one of the biggest financial obstacles facing rural fire departments in the state is a provision in the Fiscal Year 2006 appropriation to the Agriculture Departments Forestry Division that restricts distribution of annual operational grants to rural fire departments to 12 monthly installments rather than a single, up-front disbursement at the beginning of the fiscal year as had always been the case before FY 2006.
Rabon, who chairs the sub-committee which oversees the Department of Agriculture budget, said he intends to push for removal of the provision, which was enacted at the insistence of House Republicans.
Many of these departments are basically broke because they didnt have that operational grant money in the bank to draw from when they were called on to fight the worst outbreak of wildfires in our state in years. This Republican provision is literally starving these departments to death at the time when Oklahomans need them the most, Rabon said.
In August, Rabon asked Governor Brad Henry to expand the call of the current special session to include additional funding for rural fire departments, which he predicted could be forced to battle wildfires as a result of the record drought in the state. Events of the past two weeks have only made the need for additional funds greater, he said.
Senate Democrats have always supported rural fire departments. The firefighters in rural Oklahoma protect our farms, ranches and homs, schools, churches and businesses. They truly are heroes and we need to make sure they have the resources and tools they need to do the job theyve volunteered to do, Rabon said.
The Senators said their proposals are supported by Senate Appropriations Chairman Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore, and President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater.