Texas Panhandle wildfire hearings: Accountability, aerial conflicts top issues

The Texas Panhandle wildfires burned more than a million acres, claiming lives, consuming property, and livestock. 

On Tuesday, members of a special statehouse committee started a three-day hearing into the fires with accountability as the main focus. Officials from the Texas A&M Forest Service were grilled first.

"How many people are in the Predictive Analysis Department," asked state Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock).

Al Davis, director of the Texas A&M Forest Service, responded by saying the department had 11 people.

A key moment came when the leadership of the Forest Service was asked who should be held responsible for the fires. The committee was told the agency’s report does not indicate that. 

In early March, investigators reportedly stated that downed power lines sparked the Smokehouse Creek Fire. Officials with Xcel Energy said in a news release that it appears their equipment was involved. But during the hearing, committee members were not pleased with how the Forest Service appeared to avoid assigning blame.


"Why wouldn't you tell everybody in the state who did it," asked committee member Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), who chairs a House committee that deals with the power grid. His question set off a terse exchange which ended with Forest Service officials admitting that asking who was officially responsible was a "fair" question.

Another big question came from committee Chair Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who was concerned about issues regarding a lack of communication and coordination.

"So, I know now why my county judges were not told up front that there was no aircraft available because Texas Forest Service doesn't have a copy of the contract. And you didn't know it either," said King.

Conflicts, during the first few days of the wildfire outbreak, took place between the owners of local aircraft and resources flown in. Committee member Jason Abraham, who is a rancher and a pilot, spoke about being waved off from a fire scene that he was flying over at the time.


"Right before it burned the house up. About 45 minutes later. Your air support showed up.  I could have put the fire out, and the fire department is sitting there, it would have been about a ten-minute job we'd had this thing put out," said Abraham. 

The big push with outside aircraft took several days to happen. The committee was told state and federal officials spent time finding the most affordable providers to hire through a process called Best Value Determination. The committee heard how locally owned planes and helicopters were kept out of the fire zone while the value determination process was being completed.

"That's a big deal. You grounded us. You keep us from fighting fire, working on our own ranches. So that's what I asked you. Are you sure you really want Texas to have their own forces, of their own force, slash Air Force. We've seen these guys in action," said Abraham.

The Best Value Determination process, in an assessment by Rep. Hunter, does not value people or property. 

The hearing continues Wednesday with public testimony coming Thursday. A full report with recommendations for lawmakers to consider for the next legislative session is to be filed by the first of May.