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Texas emergency director calls for firefighting air force after historic Panhandle fires

By Stephen Simpson, The Texas Tribune

Texas emergency director calls for firefighting air force after historic Panhandle fires” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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PAMPA — Texas’ top emergency manager told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday that the state should establish its own firefighting aircraft division after a series of wildfires, including the largest in state history, scorched the Panhandle region earlier this year.

But the local landowners tasked with helping the Legislature investigate the fires that were responsible for at least two deaths and burned through more than 1 million acres raised doubt over the state’s ability to handle such catastrophes.

“We don’t control our own destiny, and I want to control our destiny,” Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, told a crowd of more than 100 people at the MK Brown Heritage Room where lawmakers are holding a series of hearings into the fires.

Pampa is a town of about16,000 in Gray County; it is closer to Oklahoma than the Texas Capitol. Lawmakers decided to hold the hearings in the town an hour northeast of Amarillo, making it easier for victims of the fire to attend.

The committee has five members, including state Reps. Ken King of Canadian, Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi. All three are Republicans. Landowners Jason Abraham and James Henderson are public members of the committee.

[As their neighbors fled, these Texas volunteer firefighters raced toward the flames]

“This is not a Panhandle problem. This will have statewide effects,” King, the committee’s chair, told the mixed crowd of suits and cowboy hats. “We must do what we can to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

The panel is expected to discuss what contributed to the wildfires, the allocation of response resources and the effectiveness of wildfire disaster preparedness. It will also examine the coordination between local, state, and federal government agencies regarding prevention, disaster preparedness and response.

The committee plans to publish its report by May 1.

The late firefighting air support was one of the first topics discussed Tuesday.

For days, ranchers and residents could only look up to the sky and wonder where firefighting aircraft were as they watched the historic Smokehouse Creek fire rip across their land. Dozens of families, many in nearby Hemphill County, were displaced after their homes and ranches were destroyed and their livestock killed.

Without its own fleet of aircraft to fight fires, Texas relies on a series of contractors. Many of the planes were being serviced at the time the fires started in late Feburary.

“Did the federal government jump through hoops to catch up? Yes. But there was a delay,” said Kidd, who has led TDEM for more than 13 years.

Kidd suggested Texas build its own firefighting air force with up to six aircrafts, costing at least $50 million.

“It won’t be an easy venture to start with, and we will have to continue with contracts while this is built up and people are trained. It will take some time, ” Kidd said, adding that the state would still need to utilize a mixture of private contracts and other options in the meantime.

Emmet Webb, who owns of Brazos River Helicopters and assisted with aerial firefighting efforts using his private helicopter, said Wyoming has one state-owned fire fighting helicopter to quickly address wildfires in their state.

The average cost of a firefighting helicopter is $1 to 2 million depending on the type, but once equipment is added the price can reach up to $4 to $40 million each.

Abraham said he was skeptical of a state owned firefighting air force. Thoughout the day long hearing, Abraham and a long list of local fire chiefs and other first responders levied sharp criticism of the state’s response.

“I am asking if we are sure we want Texas to be in charge of this because we have seen these guys in action. They do not have a good reputation,” he said.

From left: Local firemen Robert Ford, Trent Price, Phillip Clark and Scott Brewster sit on a panel during an investigative house committee hearing on the Texas Panhandle wildfires on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Pampa.
Local firemen Robert Ford, Trent Price, Phillip Clark and Scott Brewster sit on a panel during an investigative house committee hearing on the Texas Panhandle wildfires on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Pampa. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Local fire chiefs told the panel they need help keeping their equipment up-to-date. Many counties in the Panhandle have a declining population and the taxes raised rarely reach the emergency departments. Hemphill County’s volunteer firefighters, for examples, use decades-old vehicles. Its oldest was made in 1969, its newest is from the 1980s.

Another topic that came up early during the investigation Tuesday was a lack of communication between Panhandle volunteer fire departments and state and federal agencies. Officials said communication was fractured due to different radio frequencies between volunteer fire departments and state agencies, as well as a lack of command.

“We have to get all on the same system statewide, but we can’t afford to upgrade to digital. All we can do is hope and pray a grant comes along until then we are staying with the system we have,” said Trent Price, Hoover Volunteer Fire Department Chief.

Multiple volunteer fire chiefs told the committee they were called off fires because the Texas A&M Forest Service told them their services were no longer needed — even as fires burned in front of them.

Kidd, who is also a vice chancellor at Texas A&M, defended the state’s response. And warned the committee to be careful how they word these statements during the meeting.

“Every fire has communication gaps,” he said. “The firefighters in this area did expert work. They could have done a better job tying in, but when you are in the middle of the fight, it’s hard to pause and get everyone on the same page.”

King said there is a clear need to establish a communication standard because the disconnect between the state agencies and the fire departments in the Panhandle has reached unacceptable levels.

“Communication rules need to be placed on statute; either (Texas A&M Forest Service) are in command, or (local fire departments) are in command, but somebody needs to take responsibility,” he said.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/02/texas-panhandle-wildfire-investigation/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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