By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Adam Putnam is red hot over the Obama administration’s environmental priorities.
As Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, Putnam oversees the state’s forest service and 1 million acres of land. Fighting forest fires is one of its key responsibilities.
But due to a crackdown on diesel-fueled engines, firefighters could soon be without equipment on which they’ve come to rely. That’s an irony, considering the administration itself has been supplying agencies like the Florida Forest Service with diesel-powered trucks, backhoes, bulldozers and generators through two federal programs.
The Federal Excess Personal Property Program and the Firefighter Property Program both dole out discharged military surplus equipment to help first responders fight fires and expand emergency services. State forestry agencies can further distribute the equipment to local fire departments.
Earlier this month the programs were abruptly shut down.
“The simple answer from the administration is that the surplus equipment did not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s air emissions standards,” Putnam explained in a statewide editorial Monday.
The administration’s plan was to destroy the equipment rather than allow unapproved diesel engines.
After bipartisan pressure from 24 U.S. senators, the programs were partially reinstated by the U.S. Department of Defense, which technically loans out the government property. The reauthorization, however, comes without a long-term guarantee, is limited in scope and adds new bureaucratic requirements.
“So in a misguided attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the administration is instead allowing more pollutants to be released into the air while destroying countless acres of environmentally sensitive land and hundreds of homes and, more importantly, putting the lives of American firefighters at greater risk,” Putnam said.
In Florida, at least 500 trucks and 100 trailers are in use to battle some of the state’s 3,000 annual wildfires that scorch an estimated 130,000 acres every year, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
While there’s no upfront purchase price for state or local governments to acquire the equipment, it’s far from free. Thousands of local taxpayer dollars are needed to modify each truck to make them fire ready. Maintenance, storage, insurance and inspection-related costs also apply. For its part, the state typically pays for transporting the equipment.
According to the department, former military fuel transporters have been converted into all-terrain water tankers. Personnel carriers, large flat beds and light pick-ups have been customized to operate as brush trucks, or wilderness rescue vehicles, and can carry mobile water tanks to areas where fire hydrants are out of reach.
States also share resources, including firemen, to help combat large-scale blazes. On Monday, the same day Putnam blasted the Obama administration, a department news release announced that dozens of Florida firefighters would soon join efforts in Western states to battle out-of-control blazes.
“So far this season, the Florida Forest Service has deployed 52 wildland firefighters to Western wildfires, including Oregon’s 30,000-acre Pine Creek wildfire and Washington’s 250,000-acre Carlton Complex of wildfires,” the statement reads.
The surplus programs are similar to those offering military vehicles to state and local police forces, but without the associated controversy of militarizing homeland policing agencies.
“Firefighters risk their lives to protect other Americans, some even on a volunteer basis. The least the Obama Administration can do is provide surplus federal equipment to support their efforts and protect their lives without all the red tape and hassle,” Putnam said.