Congressional committee holds hearing about federal response to Texas fires

US Representative Michael McCaul at committee hearing
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul at the Committee hearing. Photo: Alberto Martinez, American-Statesman

On Monday, October 17, 2011 a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security committee held a field hearing in Austin entitled “Texas Wildfire Review: Did Bureaucracy Prevent a Timely Response?” The hearing was held in response to the loud complaints from Texas politicians that the federal government has not been providing enough support in dollars and firefighting resources to assist them in suppressing the numerous wildfires that have been occurring in the state since December, 2010.

The hearing was focused on speeding up the process of obtaining firefighting resources from the U. S. Forest Service and financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Texas Governor Rick Perry has slammed the federal government for deficit spending and has talked about Texas seceding from the United States, but he is seeking more than $200 million from the U.S. government to offset some of the $304 million the state has spent on wildfire suppression. Meanwhile Texas reduced the budget of the state’s wildland firefighting agency by 29 percent for the fiscal year that began in September.

Over the past several weeks there has been a lot of criticism that the USFS should have had more air tankers prepositioned in Texas, and the DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker has been a magnet for attention. When it was deployed to the state it had been working non-stop on fires in California and other states and the flight crew had bumped up against their mandatory days off. When it arrived, the aircraft had to sit for two days while the crew rested and a retardant plant was being assembled. There were complaints that the aircraft should have been able to begin working on fires immediately upon arrival.

But the DC-10, which delivered 280,000 gallons of retardant in 35 drops on fires in Texas, is just one air tanker and does not have any magical powers. Sure, it carries 11,600 gallons of retardant, four to five times more than conventional “large” air tankers that hold 2,200 to 3,000 gallons, but no single air tanker, no matter how big, could have prevented all of the damage from wildfires that Texas has been experiencing. As I’ve said many times before, aircraft do not put out fires. As long as the wind is not too strong, they can slow fires down enough to allow firefighters on the ground to put them out. It’s one tool in the tool box. Now that the U. S. Forest Service has allowed the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts to decline from 44 to 11, an air tanker that can carry as much retardant as four to five large air tankers, can be an extremely valuable tool in that box in the right conditions.

Texas Representative Michael McCaul, who organized the hearing, said “Despite all the warnings that Texas faced with it being the driest summer in more than 100 years, there was no prepositioned aircraft to help. We should have had more assets prepositioned. ” Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, said the federal government had 3 large air tankers, 3 water-scooping air tankers, 15 single engine air tankers, and 12 helicopters in Texas on September 2 before the fires near Bastrop started.

Here is an excerpt from Harbour’s written testimony before the committee, and following that, commentary about a misleading statement he made:

While the Forest Service does have direct protection responsibility for 675,000 acres of National Forest System land and grasslands in Texas, we are a relatively small player in the State. Of the total acreage burned during this fire season, 174 fires have burned 3,651 acres of the National Forest System land in Texas; 165 fires have burned 13,823 acres of land managed by the Department of the Interior in Texas; however, 3,194 fires have burned 2,876,126 acres of State and private land. We are here because our friends in the Texas Forest Service (TFS) asked us to help. We are pleased to be able to do so.

We have a long and successful partnership with our friends in the TFS. We actively assisted TFS with wildfire and support for events in the past, most recently Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the wildfires in West Texas in 2008 and 2009. We have also taken many actions over the last few months of this year to assist TFS with fire suppression efforts on State and private lands. To date we have provided approximately 9,908 fire resources. Specifically, we sent 92 firefighting crews, as well as support staff and skilled members of interagency incident management teams; a variety of aircraft – 104 helicopters, 87 airtankers, 98 other aircraft; 387 firefighting engines; 71 dozers; and 140 water tenders.

Additionally, TFS has established cooperative forest management programs, which receive funding from Forest Service, primarily through authorities in the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 (Act).

Harbour makes a valid point that the U. S. Forest Service is responsible for fire suppression on just a small portion of land in Texas. Only 1 percent of the acres that have recently burned in the state were on USFS lands. Harbour diplomatically told the Committee, we are happy to help, but….

But, Harbour may have been thinking, Texas needs to take a good look internally and figure out how they are going to provide fire protection within their state. Relying on the federal government for the suppression of fires on state or local responsibility areas is not realistic.

Looking at Harbour’s testimony, one statement that leaps out is where he said “we sent… 104 helicopters, 87 airtankers, 90 other aircraft…” Of course, this is absolutely false, at least the part about the “87 airtankers”, and the other stats are very questionable as well. The USFS has 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in the United States. Some of those were sent to Texas. In addition, six military MAFFS C-130 air tankers were dispatched to the state, plus the BAe-146 (which has “interim” approval), and another five to ten Call When Needed air tankers including Convair 580s (borrowed from Canada) and scooper air tankers. So “87 airtankers” is absurd. Maybe there were 87 orders filled for air tankers, and an air tanker making one drop on one specific fire could be one order. At best, the “87” number is misleading. At the worst, a lie. Harbour has a fire management background, and he knew this was a false statement. Did he swear to tell the truth before he testified in front of the committee?

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

13 thoughts on “Congressional committee holds hearing about federal response to Texas fires”

  1. What about all the Best Value resources setting around the country that the USFS told not only TX but several SE US state that all available resources were being utilized.

      1. Is it not time Texas got off there azz and invest in some air resources of there own and not expect the feds and Cal-Fire to always have them and them be available to them, Yes I’am a Texan,but I don’t expect the fed’s to be responsible to us as much as I do my State Gov, Perry for pres, um we tried that with Bush to get rid of him, Texans are going to have to deal with a Tax increase next session or lose more than what we have, look at the Riley Rd fire, 85% of responding FF where VFD’s, that was 2,000 FF’s they did a heck of a job with little Air resources, Yes Air resources dont stop fires but they sure did help. As one Fire Chief said after one flight of three drops (DC-10) the calivery has arrived I do believe. If I can’t believe a FC and trust in them who can we. As has been pointed out it sure isnt the USFS spokes person at this hearing.
        I fear not just for Texas but the rest of the US if they keep going in the direction they are, I was once told the defination of insanity is to keep doing the samething over and over the same way expecting diffrent. results.

  2. When is Texas going to join the rest of the nation and teach their volunteerfirefighters how to fight fire and their residents how to not start fires? Why is the Fed Govt to blame for their inepness? They have been doing the same poor practices for decades now with the same poor results, at the Fed Govt expense, OUR tax dollars.

    1. Steve if you can figure out how to get people to stop starting fires, please let us know, Bastrop was not someone burning but a tree on a powerline, wonder if that could be fixxed,, Riley was also not caused by a person burning so no one to hang for that one either. Texas well we pay our share of taxes to the feds as for the FF, well there Volunteer and not payed yet ask some of Ohio or Cali that have been here and know what they are doing and they will tell you if there not experianced wildland they learn quick enough. Had they has resources needed Bastrop would not have been as bad I suspect, on Riley well everyone got to leave that one 7-10 days earlier than expected, so it speaks for its self. Thanks for the comment Steve and the big fuzzy you let me have, lol.

  3. The Texas Fire story is one of State Government (or at least the Governor) speaking out of both sides of its/his mouth at the same time: he likes the idea of less Federal government (and even talks of seceeding from the US) then cries when the Feds don’t bail his sorry butt out for underfunding the wildland fire effort on State-protected lands. And TX has lots of $$ in its “Rainy Day Fund” too! Go Figure? Yes, this is a historic drought in Texas, and as a US citizen I’m sympathic to my fellow citizens, but they must stand up too and DEMAND that their State government redeem its responsibilities for public services. If they don’t (and/or are unwilling to pay the tax bill that those services generate) then they must learn to live with the consequences of their decisions. Life is tough, and setting priorities is one of the responsibilities of adulthood. “Pay me now, or pay me later.”

    1. Very well said Elliott, just wish Gov Perry would have allowed that Rainy day fund to be used on our FF and schools so there would not have been under funding and jobs lost.

  4. A little research would be nice, all federal persons and equipment is being provided to Texas on a federal P number. The uses is paying all federal resources, aircraft included, expecting the Texas forest service to pay it back. Ask any region 8 state agency how that worked out for them. A state agency run by the university of Texas a & m can’t be seriously expected to be responsible for statewide fire response.

    1. You may be right Toms Texas is a big State, I just wonder how Cali does it, Texas has a few Helios but no seats or other wise that I can find out about, FIA doesnt always give you correct info. Austin had a news artical about them geting the AirEvac unit there ti carry a bambi for them this year during some of there fires with resources so limited. Can Texas afford to pay for everything anymore than S/N Dakota or Montana or any other state no, just thinkin it would be nice to have some resources here to help the ground troops while they wait on some fed help if needed.

  5. I think we all are aware that air support is a great tool but without the ground resources to follow up on the drops, they are marginally successful. We need to explore the way that resources get mobilized across the country. I know how ROSS works and I know its not perfect but its (in my opinion) better than what we had. My biggest concern, as well as others across the country, is that a majority of orders coming out of Texas during the height of the fire season was for federal resources only. I certainly believe that if more none-federal fire resources (state, cooperator, etc) would have been dispatched, the positive effect would have been huge. Something we all must keep in-mind…mother nature will do what she will do so keep your heads on a swivel and stay safe! She will re-grow the grass & trees in due time so don’t put yourself or your crew in a position that you will regret.

  6. It has only taken months to figure it out, initial attack using LAT and VLAT does work! Fire in heavy timber with wind gust to 35 m.p.h. near Kountze (S.E.) Texas was contained with the assistance of eight LAT’s and one VLAT, two helicopters and hard work by the ground personnel.

  7. There are solutions to fire fighting that offer methods of controlling fires that are very very effective. The issue is one of corruption, greed, and plain old stupidity in the American society! You need to want solutions and accept them, before solutions will appear! You need to ask yourself hard questions, and have the courage to answer them truthfully instead of the present situation of screaming incessantly while fires rampage areas of the nation. There are answers to your problems, but you must step beyond corruption and accept them!

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