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Texas official: FEMA bureaucracy was ‘convoluted, time-consuming’ during wildfire response

Paul Conner Executive Editor

Amid historic wildfires in the Texas panhandle, local officials say they spent “extensive staff hours” filling out paperwork for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The FEMA bureaucracy, according to testimony delivered at a Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing Monday, did not prevent a timely response to the fires that raged in the Amarillo area, but it made life difficult for local officials who needed to spend their time organizing the response.

“Frustrations experienced in navigating the recovery process and assistance programs were tremendous,” Kevin Starbuck, emergency management coordinator for Amarillo, Texas, testified.

“It is understood that FEMA must put in place mechanisms to ensure that federal assistance is limited to truly catastrophic incidents … However, the process employed by FEMA to make those determinations is convoluted, time-consuming, and in need of improvement,” he said.

The Amarillo/Potter/Randall Office of Emergency Management (OEM) issued a local disaster declaration for the City of Amarillo and Randall and Potter Counties, seeking state assistance and a federal Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG).

Local staff generated FEMA project worksheets that were five inches thick, detailing the cost to local jurisdictions, Starbuck told the subcommittee.

To qualify for the FMAG, the cost of suppressing the Willow Creek South Complex and Tanglewood Complex wildfires had to exceed $4 million by Feb. 27, 2011. The two fires exceeded $4 million, but “a few days” after the deadline, so local responders have received no federal reimbursement. The fires are still unfunded, Starbuck said. (RELATED: Ron Paul blasts FEMA and the dependency it has created)

A few months later in May, multiple wildfires sprung up around the Amarillo area. Knowing that the region was facing “critically extreme wildfire conditions,” Starbuck said local officials deployed responders to try to head off what they believed could turn into another giant, destructive wildfire.

OEM again sought funding from FEMA, but was denied because federal officials did not believe the Cemetery Road wildfire deserved a FMAG declaration.

“The Cemetery Road wildfire continued to burn for  four days, consuming 16,373 acres, tying up extensive local emergency response resources and nearly every state and federal firefighting response asset deployed to West Texas,” Starbuck testified.

Later in the month, the Pitt Road wildfire consumed 180 acres and forced the evacuation of 200 people in Potter County. The Stone Ridge wildfire also flared up in Randall County, forcing 3,000 residents to evacuate, consuming 1,556 acres and destroying an estimated $2.5 million of property.

Both fires have reportedly qualified for federal reimbursement, according to testimony, and local officials continue to work to fill out the appropriate paperwork.

Local officials have retroactively met with a FEMA representative, who has allowed the OEM not to fill out all the required paperwork but has required a cost estimate, including the unfunded Willow Creek South Complex and Tanglewood Complex fires.

“The declaration of an FMAG for wildfire incidents should not require determination while in the midst of response to the incident,” Starbuck said.

“Requesting emergency management and/or incident command personnel to deviate attention from response efforts to bureaucratic determinations creates the potential for public safety to be threatened further.”

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