Burning Ambition: How Texas Wildfires Embarrass Rick Perry

Nothing has revealed the shortcomings of Rick Perry, as a governor and a thinker, as the terrible wildfires ravaging central Texas over the past several months. Having skipped out of a visit to burning Bastrop County over the weekend, he seems to realize that his handling of this disaster is a severe embarrassment both to him personally and to the state. That weekend no-show wasn’t the first time Perry appeared to shirk his duty; last week, he skipped a presidential campaign event in South Carolina, supposedly due to urgent responsibilities back home — and then turned up at a California fundraiser.

Around the same time, a Perry aide remarked that their campaign fundraising was “going like wildfire.”

But the ideological rot goes far deeper than goofs and gaffes. With his Tea Party disdain for the federal government and his record of slashing essential state services, Perry is ill-suited to cope with the realities of modern government — including droughts and fires that may well result from the climate change whose real origins he refuses to acknowledge. He now finds himself seeking additional disaster assistance from the federal government — and criticizing that same government for failing to do more when his general argument is that it must do far less.

Consider his own state budget, whose deep cuts meant depriving local volunteer firefighters of bulldozers and other essential equipment for stopping the spread of rural fires. Yet since last April, when the unprecedented wave of fires grew worse, Perry has been seeking federal aid to make up that shortfall — an ironic stance from a right-wing radical who threatened to secede from the United States not so long ago. Far from seceding, Perry is sulking because Washington hasn’t sent federal bulldozers to fight those fires in Bastrop County.

This disaster was not unforeseen. Over the past year, heat and drought not seen in the Lone Star State since the Dust Bowl era have led to a record-breaking conflagration: thousands of fires since December, more than a hundred active fires now and scores more reported every week. The state’s firefighters are exhausted; the trucks and planes used to combat the blazes can no longer be properly maintained. So the neglected and underfunded system is reaching its limit, which is why the state has turned in desperation to Washington eight times for aid. Fire commanders told the Christian Science Monitor last week that calls for help are going unmet because there is simply not enough manpower and equipment to serve the current need.

“Because so many fires are burning across the state, our resources are spread pretty thin,” said Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. “That’s why we need the federal government to step up to the plate immediately.”

Yes, they need the federal government to step up with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, right away — even though the state reduced funding for its fire departments by nearly 75 percent last year and cut the budget for the Texas Forest Service by more than a third.

Perry suggests that fighting the wildfires will be financed eventually from the state’s “rainy day fund,” although many Texas legislators of both parties warn that fund has already been depleted. What he probably expects is that the costs of firefighting will be recovered somehow from the federal government — and he isn’t waiting to see how those expenditures are offset in the rest of the federal budget. As the lieutenant governor said, they want help “immediately.”

Of course the good people of Bastrop County and across beleaguered Texas deserve the nation’s assistance. They pay federal taxes and, despite their governor’s stupid remarks, they’re loyal and patriotic too. But they ought to reconsider the kind of irresponsible leadership that responds to environmental change with right-wing mythology and slashed budgets — and then must plead for salvation by that awful bureaucracy back east. And the rest of us ought to consider what would happen if he were in charge of the federal government. Where would everyone turn after he dismantles Washington, as he vows so eagerly to do?


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