Bill seeks to ease burden on state’s fire agencies during crises

Bill seeks to ease burden on state’s fire agencies during crises

11 February 2013

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USA — When drought-parched Texas caught fire in 2011, ushering in one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history, those on the front lines needed all the help they could get.

 From the Riley Road fire in Montgomery County to the deadly blaze that leveled thousands of acres of pine trees in Bastrop, a new wildfire broke out at the rate of one blaze every five minutes for a full year.

Local firefighters and Texas Parks and Wildlife resources were stretched to their limits, but proposed legislation by a Houston-area lawmaker seeks to change that.

The bill by state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, would make it easier for fire agencies to take on short-term, last-minute volunteers during times of crisis by clarifying that entities may use volunteer help without increasing the department’s liability risk.

The bill would have helped during the 2011 blazes, but, perhaps more importantly, it will also be useful going forward as Texas continues to deal with drought conditions, he said.

“As dry weather patterns persist across most of Texas, it will be important for the 83rd Texas Legislature to work to limit losses from disasters,” Bell said. “Some communities may be operating similarly to this now. Let’s give our hard-working emergency services personnel and willing volunteers the force of law behind their efforts.”

Bill’s details

The proposed legislation would allow commissioners courts, county fire marshals, fire departments and emergency management leaders to accept help from private citizens during emergency situations.

It also would allow for increased flexibility by those agencies to borrow equipment from private citizens and use volunteers and other resources to fight wildfires and act in other crisis situations.

Fire departments responded to 102,799 fires in 2011, according to the Texas Fire Incident Reporting System. Some 169 people were killed, another 825 were injured and more than $1 billion in property loss was reported, fire officials said.

In Bell’s district, which includes Waller and Montgomery counties, the Tri-County Fire, also known as the Riley Road Fire, burned nearly 20,000 acres and destroyed 73 homes, Bell said.

“At the time, private landowners and companies with resources across the state came forward to volunteer their services and equipment to fight the fire, but emergency personnel questioned whether offers to assist could be accepted,” Bell’s office said in a statement.

Record-setting blazes in 2011

On Labor Day weekend, the Bear Creek fire broke out in Cass and Marion counties, burning more than 40,000 acres during nearly two weeks, making it the largest fire in East Texas history, according to the Texas Forest Service.

In Central Texas, about 30 miles from Austin, the Bastrop County Complex fire also began during Labor Day weekend and burned for more than a month, killing two people and scorching 34,068 acres and 1,645 homes, making it the single most destructive fire in Texas history, forest service officials said.

More than 16,200 acres of pine and mixed-pine forest were charred during the fire, fire officials said.

In North Texas, about 100 miles west of Fort Worth, the Possum Kingdom Complex fire destroyed 166 homes and two churches, and threatened 600 more homes. The blaze involved 90 percent of the park, and it required 450 firefighters, three air tankers and three helicopters to contain the fire, according to fire officials.

Another fire broke out a few months later in that same area and consumed another 39 homes, officials said.

By the time the summer ended in 2011, about 4 million acres in Texas had been scorched by wildfires since the season began in November 2010, according to Inciweb, a reporting site by the United States Forest Service.

The historic fire season was made worse by a drought that caused billions in damage to the Lone Star State’s agricultural industry.


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