State-managed air resources, better communication, and support for local rural volunteer firefighters emerge as priorities for the Panhandle Wildfires Investigative Committee

by By Suzanne Bellsnyder, Texas Rural Reporter
Photo by Texas AgrLife Photo by Texas AgrLife

April 5, 2024

PAMPA - The Texas House Investigative Committee on the Panhandle Wildfires held meetings this week in Pampa to identify breakdowns in communication and the region's access to necessary firefighting resources during the state's response to the wildfires that ravaged the region and had a devastating impact on the rural counties of Hemphill, Hutchison Robertson, and Gray County.

The Legislative Committee, commissioned by Speaker Dade Phelan, was led by Chairman Ken King of Canadian. Representative King's hometown and family ranch were affected by the recent wildfires, which burned over one million acres this time, making it the largest wildfire in US history.

In his opening statement, King said, "The committee's goal is to mitigate the next disaster, not to litigate the past." He said testimony over the three-day hearing would focus on identifying the breakdowns and creating a path forward and that "The Texas Panhandle Matters."

Representatives Dustin Burrows of Lubbock and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, along with Jason Abraham and James Henderson, who were public committee members and ranchers impacted by the fires, served as the investigative committee members.

On the first day, the Committee heard invited testimony from state responding agencies, aerial firefighting experts, communication resources, and local elected officials.

The discussions were tense, as they revealed deficiencies in communication, cooperation, and the availability of adequate resources to respond to the disaster, specifically as it related to the role of the state agencies. The Committee grilled the Texas Forest Service (TFS) and Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM), specifically on their decision not to initiate air cover to be available on Tuesday morning when several first responders noted that with air cover at that time, firefighters could have controlled the forward progression of the fire.

Agency officials testified that this decision was based on two factors: the TFS's determination that typical wildfire conditions did not exist in the days before the fire and the availability of aerial firefighting equipment.

Texas does not own or contract firefighting airplanes but instead depends on the federal government for those planes to respond. Committee members and Nim Kidd, the state's lead emergency management official, agreed that this should change. Kidd said, "We don't control our own destiny, and I want to control our destiny."

The lack of communication was a common theme discussed throughout the three days of testimony. Local first responders highlighted the need for a regional approach to wildfire preparedness and response because local communities and first responders know best what needs to happen and where the resources are.

The Committee identified a massive need for better funding for rural volunteer fire departments, which testified they run on old equipment, outdated communication technology, and often very small budgets supplemented by bake sales. There was consensus that policymakers must evaluate funding for volunteer firefighters and the current grant programs to ensure they have the necessary resources to protect our communities.

Day two of the testimony focused on recovery efforts and the economic impact, with testimony from Texas AgriLife Extension Services, animal health, land management officials, and more from local first responders, county judges, and landowners. The Committee also heard about fire mitigation efforts from transportation officials and other experts.

The four local county judges testified on the significant financial impact the wildfires will have on their communities and this region. The Roberts County Judge reported that 90% of his county burned and that the economic loss to his county could be up to $60M, and for most of those impacted, it would be their only source of income. Hemphill County Judge Lisa Johnson reported that her appraisal district had calculated $223M in lost property values in her county. Andy Holloway, with an AgirLife Extension agent in Hemphill County, said the wildfires destroyed 2,500 miles of fencing, which would have to be replaced at an estimated cost of $15,000 per mile. King said the economic impact of the wildfires would be substantial to both the Texas and the national beef economies, considering 36%of all fed cattle in the US are raised in the Texas Panhandle Region. The challenge in this area for the committee is to get a good accounting of the total economic impact on the region, but one they believe is an essential piece to their final report.

Landowners impacted by the fires first shared their concerns for their neighbors over themselves. Then, they shared their frustration over the same patterns present since 2006 and that their livelihoods continue to be impacted by man-made fires. Joe Leathers, with the famous 6666 Ranch in Hutchinson County, said, "Leading from behind is following," and he expressed the need to do something about this ongoing situation. The 6666 Rancg lost 23,000 acres this time, but they have lost grass to wildfires in 2006, 2011, 2017, 2023, and 2024. He thanked this investigative Committee for taking the lead in investigating and solving these issues.

The Committee also discussed with landowners and state agencies the pros and cons of fire mitigation efforts such as prescribed burning and the need to balance property rights with best practices for managing vegetation that presents wildfire hazards.

On the final day of the hearings, the Committee heard testimony from state regulatory officials, the two utility companies for the affected Panhandle Area, Xcel Energy and North Plains Electric Cooperative (NPEC), and four public members who had signed up to testify.

Craig Cowden, a local rancher, testified that since 2006, his ranch has been impacted by seven fires, three of which resulted in a total loss. All of these fires were started by downed power lines. It was another lively exchange as regulators from the Texas Public Utilities Commission and the Texas Railroad Commission sat next to Cowden, and he showed photographs of fire safety issues on his ranch that involved electrical lines to the Committee, putting those state agencies on the hot seat. The Committee identified a responsibility gap between the PUC and the RRC on the inspection of power lines and oil and gas leases, which the Committee indicated needed to be fixed.

Xcel Energy testified that in two of the fires, the 287 Reamer Fire and the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the fire originated from an Xcel Energy power pole that was on the priority one list for replacement. Osmose, the Company that conducts the pole inspections, declined the invitation to participate in the investigative hearings, which was a point of concern for the committee members throughout the three days of hearings.

Accepting responsibility, Xcel told committee members they have accelerated their replacement project and that all 1400 priority one poles will be replaced within 30 days. Additionally, Xcel has filed a Resiliency Plan with the PUC under a new program that provides funding support for Utilities for projects that can help update infrastructure, assist with fire mitigation, and make power delivery more reliable.

Xcel is also making power management changes, including a decision to power down the system during significant wildfire weather events. However, this strategy could impact electric services in the communities they serve. The Committee thanked Xcel for taking responsibility and making strides towards mitigating the possibility of future wildfires caused by power lines.

King's closing comments sum up for those of us who live here in the Panhandle when he said, "One thing I love about the Panhandle is your comments were short, sweet, and to the point. We don't mince words; we can tell it like we see it, and if you don't like it, you can get over your feelings because we're not changing."

The Investigative Committee will present a report of its findings on May 1, 2024, to the Texas House with recommendations for legislative changes during the next Legislative Session, which begins in January 2025.

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