The politics of fire
By STERRY BUTCHER
FORT DAVIS – The ranchers and homeowners and shopkeepers and retirees that packed the Jeff Davis County courtroom on Tuesday night wanted answers to the Rock House fire.
Why weren’t people better notified of the oncoming fire or the up-to-date fire situation? Why were some burn outs nixed? Why did law enforcement turn help away?
The Rock House fire was of unprecedented magnitude locally, burning 314,276 acres. It raced from its start near Marfa to a point 24 miles away in just nine hours, overwhelming local firefighters and law enforcement. That’s where Captain Jay Webster, of the Texas Highway Patrol, came in.
“Through state law, I’m the disaster district chairman,” he told the crowd at the courthouse. “When locals run out of resources, I help get resources.”
Webster arrived April 10, the day after the fire started. He moderated the Rock House conversation Tuesday night and began with an explanation.
According to state law the mayor or county judge has the final say so in the decisions that are made in a disaster, like the Rock House. The Texas Forest Service was called in, then the U.S. Forest Service, whose Blue Team stayed for 21 days before being replaced by the Red Team. At one point, 600 firefighters were assigned to the fire. The feds were not initially aware of the county judge’s decision-making power, which was cause for friction.
“I had to correct that,” said Webster. “That was a communication mistake.”
Tuesday’s meeting was intended to clear up rumors and accusations that have lingered in the wake of the fire, chiefly that decisions by County Judge George Grubb needlessly threatened homes and caused thousands of acres to burn.
Webster focused on his topmost priority.
“Nobody died,” he said. “So what if extra acreage got put to rest? The bottom line is nobody died. That’s our number one goal – and we succeeded. You can come together and help each other recover.”
Paul Hanneman is the chief regional fire incident commander for the Texas Forest Service. Winds and tinder-dry conditions kept the fire alive until May 1, despite firefighters, back burns and drops from air tankers. On April 21, the federal team proposed a 92,000-acre burnout, then another burn of an additional 80,000 acres. The decision was made to deny the burnouts.
“I had a problem with the proposal,” said Hanneman. “There was no plan for contingency lines. What if it jumps across the road? How do we stop it? It was creating a potential that we couldn’t hold it.”
One by one, Webster called to the podium those who had signed up to speak.
Steve Bickerstaff went first. He’s a lawyer who requested a citizen commission to explore the local handling of the fire. The federal firefighters, he said, “feel if we’d had the back burn, if we’d gone with their recommendations, it would’ve saved $4 million and all that risk.”
“They’re accountable to me,” said Hanneman. “A decision was made. It’s not going to bring anything back.”
Neither the Department of Public Safety nor the Forest Service will participate in any testimony or questioning from a citizen commission on the fire, said Webster.
Every speaker expressed gratitude for local firefighters and law enforcement, but many still sought answers. Why were some Limpia Crossing residents warned to get out but others weren’t, it was asked.
In the confusion of those first critical hours, law enforcement officers spread out wherever they could to get people out of harm’s way. There were only a very few officers available; they didn’t get to everyone to warn them. Some people didn’t want to leave. Buildings were on fire. Grassland was on fire. Cell service was out. Power failed. There was no water. Night fell. Law enforcement raced from Mano Prieto to Dolores Mountain to town and then out to Limpia Crossing. Webster said videos shot from the interior of troopers’ cars indicated four of them very nearly didn’t make it out of bad situations.
“The fire got here so fast,” said DPS Sgt. Robert Lujan. “We tried to coordinate as best we could. We were overwhelmed with our small number of resources.”
The audience was supportive.
“We live in a remote area,” said resident Julie McIvor. “Everyone involved did the best job they could. We have elected officials. A citizen committee is ridiculous. If you have something to say, talk with the elected officials.”
Several excellent suggestions came from the crowd, all of which Webster carefully noted. Reverse 911 is a service that calls residences and businesses with information in times of emergency. Consensus was that this is highly useful and necessary to obtain.
Bob Gray, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform, suggested a radio frequency be established on which could broadcast vital information. Generators are needed to keep the water supply going, he said – a project that is actually already in the works.
Scrolling information on TV stations and regular, accurate information should be disseminated to residents as the disaster wears on. Maybe TxDoT could burn the right of ways as a firebreak. Perhaps the National Weather Service could include fire updates on weather radios.
Mary Ann Luedecke was among the last to speak. Like other ranchers, she and her husband fought the fire for days on their land. When firefighters with dozers rolled in, she was briefly elated, then heartbroken to see them set burnouts on all the land they’d fought to save. Firefighters should rely on local knowledge, she said.
“We know every ranch, road, every nook, cranny, every inch of that country but never once were we asked where we should go or what would be helpful,” she said. “All we were told is we’re going to burn this country because it’s for the greater good.”
Friends who tried to reach the Luedeckes on horseback or with spray rigs were turned back by troopers at roadblocks.
The officers shouldn’t have been so strict, said Webster. Anyone with reason to be there should’ve been let through.
“Those were strike teams with young troopers from El Paso,” he said. “The thing about young troopers is that they will do what you tell them. This one falls back on me.”
The meeting slipped toward closure.
“Communication, in all facets, could’ve been better,” Webster observed. “We could’ve done better in warning you. We try the best we can do, but here’s not always the time to debate a decision – it just has to get done.”
Webster and other officials will sift through and discuss the suggestions and criticisms that came up Tuesday night.
“It falls on me and the county judge to make sure we did the job right,” he said. “You want to make sure the job’s done better the next time. I can assure you that will happen.”
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