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Non-local resources savior to crews fighting East Texas wildfires

By Robyn Claridy
Sept. 15, 2011 at 11 p.m.

As fire danger has continued to grow across East Texas, the region has become a top destination of firefighting resources from across the nation.

Hundreds of firefighters and support personnel have arrived in East Texas to combat fast-moving wildfires that have consumed tens of thousands of acres, destroyed homes and claimed lives.

And without federal help in support of local firefighting efforts, officials said, much bigger swaths of East Texas would be in flames.

"Texas is the No. 1 priority in the nation right now," said Virginia Gibbons, spokeswoman for Pacific Northwest National Incident Management Team 2, which arrived in Longview this past week. "That doesn't mean they get everything, but their needs weigh heavily on what is made available."

It may not be everything, but it's a lot.

Thursday alone, 60 firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska and U.S. Forest Service in California, who are part of so-called hotshot crews specially trained to fight wildfires, and 61 Type 2 firefighters from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Arizona and New Mexico, were fighting fires alongside untold numbers of East Texas professional and volunteer firefighters.

Dozens of firefighting aircraft continued dropping thousands of gallons of water and flame retardant, and specialists working from the city-county Emergency Operations Center were helping to keep it all on track.


<ul> <li>The U.S. Forest Service has provided 52 firefighters and 10 fire engines from California, Utah, Mississippi and Wyoming.</li> <li>The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs sent 13 firefighters with four engines from Arizona, California and Montana.</li> <li>Colorado sent 29 firefighters and eight engines.</li> <li>The Bureau of Land Management in Nevada sent seven firefighters and two engines.</li> <li>New Mexico sent three firefighters and one engine.</li> <li>North Dakota sent three firefighters and one engine.</li> <li>Another 27 people from Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington are working in operations.</li> <li>And another 58 people from Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and other parts of Texas are here tending to firefighters' needs.</li> </ul>

The help is badly needed, said Jan Amen, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service. Thursday was Texas' 303rd consecutive day of battling wildfires, a fact that has played a major role in bringing such a vast array of resources to bear.

"The fire dispatch system moves resources around the nation like chess pieces to where they are most needed," Gibbons said, "but with Texas being the No. 1 priority, a lot of them are being sent here."

In addition to firefighters on the ground, there are about 60 aircraft being shuffled to wildfire trouble spots around Texas. They include:

<ul> <li>Air tankers, which can deliver about 2,000 gallons of water or flame retardant per trip.</li> <li>Scooper planes, which can scoop up then drop about 1,300 gallons of water and retardant.</li> <li>Single-engine tanker planes, which deliver between 300 and 800 gallons of water.</li> <li>Type-1 heavy helicopters, which have belly tanks that haul as much as 2,000 gallons.</li> </ul>

There also are various other aircraft on duty that can fill up with water from area lakes and ponds in minutes and get back to fires quickly, said John Parsons, the incident management team's air operations director.

"Just like manpower, aircraft is moved around as they are needed," he said. "There are lots of helicopters and small and large tankers helping put out these fires."

The federal effort includes more than firefighters and equipment, however. There also are wildfire and risk specialists, a team Gibbons said is designed to make sense out of the chaos that springs from fighting dozens of fast-moving fires at once and staying on top of the hundreds of troops and array of equipment deployed against the blazes. The team's base of operations is alongside local emergency management officials in the city-county Emergency Operations Center in Longview.

Each day, their job is to create and run a plan of attack.

"We use our organization system to regain order," Gibbons said. "When you have a lot of people trying to use their own communication systems, things get confusing, so what we do is facilitate all levels of government in working together to meet emergency objectives."

But she said the management team wouldn't work without local influence.

"We have to have local participation. The national resources can't be of any use or help without locals being there side-by-side with us," she said.



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