Lawmakers say lack of funds, too many cedars hamper Oklahoma firefighters
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
8/07/12 at 7:19 AM
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As wildfires continue to burn in Oklahoma, two lawmakers say the state has failed to give firefighters the money and the policy they need to be successful.
Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, said the Oklahoma Legislature has short-changed volunteer fire departments in the state budget for the second consecutive year.
The budget allows for $5,000 grants to properly certified volunteer firefighting units, which is all the state funding the departments get for fuel and equipment.
"We didn't fund the volunteer departments at an adequate level last year, and then we gave them the same amount of money this year while we're continuing in the drought and then expect them to do miracle work on very little resources," Dorman said.
Meanwhile, another lawmaker complained that for political reasons the Legislature killed his plan to make progress on the eradication of eastern red cedar trees, an invasive species with the burning potential of a fire bomb with roots.
The invasive trees are full of oil and make bad fires much worse, said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City.
"They go up like a Roman candle - like a bomb," he said. "They don't just burn. They explode in a fire ball."
Paddy Metcalf, fire program coordinator at Oklahoma State University and a retired fire chief, agreed, saying cedars are a "gigantic problem" for firefighters in the field.
"We don't even want firefighters in the area where these trees are," Metcalf said. "One tree ignites. It ignites the next tree. ... When they burn, it's kind of like an explosion."
Last year, Morrissette got a bill aimed at reducing the number of eastern red cedars in the Oklahoma prairie through the Legislature, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Mary Fallin, who said the measure created a new state bureaucracy that would duplicate work already being done by other state agencies.
This year, the House passed another anti-cedar bill by Morrissette, but the bill - House Bill 2695 - died in a Senate committee.
"All policy change ends up being some sort of political question: Is it a Democrat proposing it or is it a Republican, and that is the line of demarcation," Morrissette said. "No matter how good the idea is, it comes down to who is proposing it."
Sen. Ron Justice, R-Chickasha, was the co-author of Morrissette's bill in the Senate. He said the bill's defeat had less to do with partisan politics than it did with lawmakers' concerns about how its requirements would impact private land owners.
"Everybody is concerned about trying to find a way to contain the eastern red cedar," Justice said.
Getting an effective bill through the Legislature may just take another year for constituents to get the message to their lawmakers, he said.
Mark Harrison, spokesman for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said the cedar trees are a spreading danger.
The trees have moved throughout the state because man has suppressed the natural brake on their spread - fire, he said.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Services estimates that nearly half of the state's 17 million acres of tree and shrub land has at least 50 eastern red cedars per acre.
Morrissette said the trees' roots soak up 50 to 60 gallons of water a day, making the state's drought conditions worse.
But State Forester George Geissler downplayed the role of the eastern red cedar in the current spurt of fires.
While cedars are full of fuel, ignite easily and can make a fire harder to extinguish, Geissler said the extreme dry conditions in rural Oklahoma have turned practically every tree into fuel.
Every tree and patch of brown grass is a fire waiting to burn, he said.
" 'It's all bad at this point,' is, I guess, the way to put it," he said.
Morrissette said he plans to keep firing away at the cedar menace. He's planning a state Capitol hearing on the issue in the next few weeks and promised to bring more legislation forward next year.
"I'm going to come at this again, and I'm going to keep coming until somebody - hopefully the governor and the people in charge at the Legislature - take this seriously," he said.
House Bill 2695 had four provisions:
The bill proposed:
The measure passed the state House but died in a Senate committee.
- Authority for city and county officials to remove invasive trees, including eastern red cedars, from highly infested areas controlled by absentee owners.
- Tax incentives for land owners to clear eastern red cedars from highly infested areas. Individual owners would have been limited in how many credits they could claim, and there would have been a statewide cap on how many credits could be claimed.
- A requirement that cedar manufacturers wishing to apply for state contracts register with the state Central Purchasing Department.
- A requirement to modify the growth of trees, vegetation and other fuel sources from areas within 100 feet of unoccupied homes or other structures in accordance with guidelines adopted by the National Fire Protection Association.
Original Print Headline: Poor funding, cedars hinder firefighters, lawmakers say
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
Richard Morrissette: He blames politics for the death of his red cedar bill.