TX Emergency Management Chief Believes the State Needs Its Own Firefighting Aircraft

File Photo: Summit Trail Fire. A large airtanker makes a water drop on the Summit Trail Fire in Washington. Original public domain image from Flickr

By STEPHEN SIMPSON, The Texas Tribune
PAMPA, Texas (AP) — Texas’ top emergency manager told a panel of lawmakers 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 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 during a Tuesday meeting in Pampa 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.
Pampa, a town of about 16,000 in Gray County about an hour northeast of Amarillo, is closer to Oklahoma than the Texas Capitol. Lawmakers decided to hold the hearings there to make it easier for victims of the fire to attend.

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“This is not a Panhandle problem. This will have statewide effects,” Republican Rep. Ken 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 and plans to publish its report by May 1.

For days, ranchers and residents could only look to the sky and wonder where firefighting aircraft were as they watched the historic Smokehouse Creek fire rip across their land.

The fire, ignited by power lines, killed at least two people and left a charred landscape as it burned nearly 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometers) and spilled into neighboring Oklahoma.

Dozens of families 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 February.

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“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.

He said 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.

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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 $40 million each.

Landowner Jason Abraham said he was skeptical of a state owned firefighting air force. Throughout the day long hearing, Abraham, 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,” Abraham said.

Another issue raised 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.

“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.
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This story was produced by The Texas Tribune.

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By STEPHEN SIMPSON, The Texas Tribune PAMPA, Texas (AP) — Texas’ top emergency manager told a panel of lawmakers 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 this year. But the local landowners tasked with helping the Legislature […]

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