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Gov. Rick Perry sees Texas wildfires as statewide emergency. FEMA doesn't?

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In a strongly worded letter to President Obama on April 16, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked for a federal emergency declaration that would release more US resources – and cash – to fight what may be the worst wildfire season in Lone Star State history.

“I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state,” Governor Perry wrote.

Ten days later, that appeal has gone unanswered, though nearly 1 million acres have burned in the meantime. Last week, Perry asked Texans to pray for rain to stall fires that have scorched nearly 2 million acres since late last year – the amount that had burned in 2008, when President Bush, a Texas resident, declared a federal emergency in Texas on March 15.

In an e-mail, FEMA spokesman Bradley Carroll said Perry’s request for a statewide disaster declaration is under review. He also noted that in cases of natural disasters such as wildfires, the first responders are local emergency personnel, volunteers, humanitarian organizations, and private groups, and he pointed to 20 fire management assistance grants that FEMA has already applied to specific working fires in Texas. The grant money can be used to cover as much as three-quarters of Texas’s eligible firefighting costs, such as expenses for field camps, equipment, and firefighter mobilization and demobilization, for a specific fire.

“We expect the [disaster declaration] to be going through approval, but we have not received it yet,” says Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry. In the meantime, she adds, “Texas continues to pull all resources available toward fighting these fires, and we’re doing everything at the state level to continue fighting this and ensure that we protect property in Texas as best as possible.”

Though the governor of red-state Texas and President Obama are perhaps not the best of friends, there’s no evidence that politics is behind the delay. Moreover, the US Forest Service is fully involved in supporting the Texas firefighting.

Still, some note, North Carolina received a presidential disaster declaration on April 20, four days after a rash of tornadoes tore through that state. Similarly, it took President Bush four days after the October 2007 California wildfires began burning to declare it a national emergency.

“There’s two reasons why I don’t think there’s any political footdragging,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, in Austin. “One, it’s not Obama’s style, and, two, it would be a politically costly thing to do when Americans are in danger.”

The delay in declaring Texas a disaster area nonetheless has some people scratching their heads. Perry has publicly criticized Mr. Obama on several occasions for matters ranging from federal stimulus funds to border security and once entertained the idea of seceding to end “federal interference” in the affairs of the Lone Star State.


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