Senator Jeff Rabon, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources & Regulatory Services, is urging legislative leaders and Governor Henry to immediately convene a special session to provide immediate funding to rural fire fighters.
“The $1 million recently appropriated to the Department of Agriculture is simply not enough. Spending a few million dollars now could avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in lost homes, property and lives today,” Rabon (D-Hugo) said. “I suggested early in the summer that we should come back in special session immediately and appropriate money to assist these rural fire departments and sadly my plea fell on deaf ears.”
When Rabon called for an expansion of the special session he predicted rural fire departments could be forced to battle wildfires as a result of the record drought in the state. Events of the past month have only made the need for additional funds greater, he said.
“Senate Democrats recently called for a supplemental appropriation to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to help rural Oklahoma fire departments pay the costs of fighting the rash of wildfires that swept across the state in recent weeks,” Rabon said. “We need to do more, and we should do it now before the situation becomes even more desperate for our rural fire departments that help protect the quality of life in rural Oklahoma.”
Rabon suggested that the situation has become so dire that he believes it warrants the attention of the National Guard, in whatever assistance and services they may provide at the Governor’s direction.
“I’m getting calls right and left from people in my district and other places across Oklahoma who are desperate for additional help,” Rabon said.
“I am calling on the leadership of Governor Henry to do whatever necessary to protect our homes, farm land and citizens from the danger of these fires, even if it means calling in the National Guard.”
The Senator said even fire departments in line to receive federal assistance to off-set the costs of fighting the blazes that burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the state are still facing large unexpected costs from their efforts.
He explained the Federal Emergency Management Administration will only pay 75 percent of the costs. Rabon is proposing a supplemental appropriation to the Forestry Division at the Department of Agriculture to cover the other 25 percent.
“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 can’t 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,” Rabon said.
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 Department’s 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 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 didn’t have that operational grant money in the bank from which to draw 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,” he said.
Rabon concluded by saying that Senate Democrats have always supported rural fire departments.
“The firefighters in rural Oklahoma protect our farms, ranches and homes, schools, churches and businesses,” the lawmaker said. “They truly are heroes and we need to make sure they have the resources and tools they need to do the job for which they have so graciously volunteered.”