McCaul: Help should be phone call away

McCaul: Help should be phone call away

12 September 2011

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USA — One of two DC-10s and half of the military’s fleet of C-130s are now pre-positioned in Texas to fight wildfires. This comes after some concerns about delayed response to the Bastrop fires last week.

The aircraft are now at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and will remain there while the fire danger remains high.

“The DC-10 got here in time to put out the fire just west of Houston but unfortunately not for Bastrop, and that’s something I’m going to chair oversight hearings on Homeland Security to get to the bottom of why can’t we more rapidly deploy?” Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said Monday at ABIA .

The DC-10 is used to drop retardant around the fire area to prevent it from spreading more. The aircraft arrived last week but sat at the airport because the pilots needed the FAA-mandated two-day downtime after a full two weeks of flying, fighting fires in California.

McCaul chairs the Congressional subcommittee that oversees all Department of Homeland Security operations. One of his main concerns is with the National Forest Service not having an exclusive contract with 10 Tanker, which owns the DC-10, or other private firefighting services.

The congressman said exclusive use agreements would ensure long-term use of such aircraft to fight fires, meaning the company would have money to hire extra crews to be on standby, not to mention having fire retardant systems ready to go near fire-prone areas.

McCaul also questioned the “bureacracy” between FEMA , the Obama administration, and the state of Texas, saying the process between the three “delayed the process by a couple of days.”

“While everyone has worked feverishly to save lives and property, I am greatly concerned by the cumbersome protocols in place for requesting assistance,” McCaul said. “In my estimation, they prevented firefighting assets from being utilized, even when fires were at zero percent containment and people were desperate.

“Help should be a phone call away, not an act of Congress.”

Congressman Lloyd Doggett disputed any assertion that the federal response was muddled.

“Who could object to streamlining the process, but the problem here is not lack of streamlining but an excess of grandstanding,” said Doggett, an Austin Democrat. “There was no confusion. The governor knew full well that no Bastrop-specific application had been filed.”

On Monday, Gov. Rick Perry’s office reiterated its request from July to expand the partial Major Disaster Declaration that President Barack Obama approved for April’s wildfires in Texas. That request is still pending.

“It would have covered ongoing costs, even for the last week,” said Perry’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed.

As for a new request for last week’s wildfires, Nashed said Perry and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke on Tuesday about the need for assistance, followed by a phone call from Obama to Perry on Wednesday that assured Texas would receive federal help.

Perry’s office said he wrote Obama a letter after the phone call to make that need clear. As acting governor on Tuesday (because Perry was out-of-state), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wrote a separate letter to the president to continue the conversation, then a second letter on Friday with the completed application and supporting documentation for the federal declaration. Obama approved the request just hours later that evening.

“We needed to get things under control first and to assess the situation,” Nashed said as to the reason Perry did not submit the application sooner.

The wildfire in Bastrop is still not completely contained and has destroyed 1,554 homes and killed two people.

“With the homeless remaining unassisted for five days, the State finally submitted a Bastrop specific application, which received near immediate federal approval,” Doggett said, when speaking about the delay.

As for firefighting resources now available, the DC-10 is the largest tanker in the world. It can hold roughly 12,000 gallons of the water/retardant mix.

According to the Texas Forest Service, the last time the aircraft was used was in April for the 158,000-acre Wildcat Fire north of San Angelo. This past weekend, it flew eleven missions to fight fires near Houston.

“It can cover an area about 500 feet wide by three-quarters of mile long,” said TFS spokesman Nick Harrison. “But it doesn’t always get that much, depending on the wind and the amount of timber it needs to cover.”

“With the drought conditions the way they are for six months and up to a year, it’s foreseeable we’re going to have more and more of these fires, but the good news is now we have these assets to respond rapidly,” McCaul added.

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