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Arizona wildfire could spread to New Mexico

Eve Troeh Jun 8, 2011

Arizona wildfire could spread to New Mexico

Eve Troeh Jun 8, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Firefighters haven’t been able to make much progress on that 600-square-mile forest fire in Arizona. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes, and flames are now headed toward transmission lines that carry electricity as far away as Texas.

But fires are also burning in Texas, Alaska, New Mexico and Georgia. And flooding continues to threaten areas across the Midwest. Tornado sites around the country still need cleaning up. Last year, the U.S. logged a record number of federal disasters. This year stands to break that record.

And in the thick of all these crises, states have no money to cover the expense. Marketplace’s Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: When big fires hit, states rally. So Oregon pilots are dropping red, fire-killing chemicals over Arizona blazes. Rod Nichols at the Oregon Department of Forestry says that helps his agency’s budget.

Rod Nichols: Our people are off our payroll for a while, and on the payroll of whichever state they’re working for.

Oregon won’t send the bill to Arizona until everyone’s home.

Nichols: Administrative people often talk about the real fire season occurring after, meaning all the accounting.

Arizona’s bill could be mostly picked up by the feds, if President Obama declares a national disaster. But he’ll only do that if lots of homes and businesses burned. Arizona won’t know how many until flames die down.

Eric Holdeman consults communities on emergency management.

Eric Holdeman: That’s why there’s this intense pressure on getting a presidential declaration, because without it, then there’s nothing for the individual citizens because they don’t have a disaster program whatsoever.

He says many states raided disaster funds to fill budget gaps, so governors depend on federal aid.

But it’s subjective. The White House didn’t label Texas fires a national disaster. The burn area’s mostly sagebrush. Now the Texas governor has to find money for cleanup.

Holdeman: He has no additional relief, and that’s just putting him further in the hole. They’re going to have to cut other programs.

Holdeman says smaller scale disasters can be the biggest problem for states. If, say, a tornado destroys a few homes, residents have only broke local agencies and charity to turn to.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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