Alert: Texas Forest Service strategically plans for wildfire response

COLLEGE STATION, TX (News Release) - Six single-engine air tankers, one heavy air tanker, 25 bulldozers, four wildland fire strike teams, 27 fireline supervisors and a six-person fire prevention team are just a fraction of the resources standing by today to ensure that safety comes first during the extreme wildfire danger conditions in West Texas.

Texas Forest Service officials began ordering additional resources about a week ago in preparation for the next few months, when dangerous wildfire is predicted due to unseasonably high temperatures, high winds and low humidity. In the past seven days alone, Texas Forest Service has responded to 52 fires burning 19,000 acres.

With dangerous wildfire conditions predicted today in West Texas, resources are staged strategically to ensure efficient suppression, said Texas Forest Service Emergency Response Coordinator Shawn Whitley.

"We've ordered everything from public information officers and support personnel, to major aircraft, equipment and additional firefighters," he said.

The National Weather Service is predicting damaging winds of 35 to 45 mph today with gusts possibly exceeding 60 mph – which means conditions could become unsafe for planes to fly.

"There are safety limits in flying and we don't want to push those limits," Whitley said. "Our best resource today is going to be firefighters on the ground."

A Texas Forest Service incident command post is set up in Merkel, near Abilene, where an incident management team is activated, along with four fire supervisors, eight bulldozers, an engine, an air attack aircraft, an air tanker, a lead plane and a helicopter. Other resources are spread out across the state to provide for optimal rapid response.

"When we're in a fire season, we staff based on risk, not occurrence," said Texas Forest Service Fire Operations Chief Mark Stanford.

Local fire departments are the first responders to wildfire. Texas Forest Service's role is to assess the situation and order resources based on need and requests from agency personnel and local fire departments.

When preparing for a day like today, when wildfire is a likely occurrence, Texas Forest Service makes advance contact with fire departments in high-risk areas to pre-plan, Whitley said.

"You have to re-prepare every day to make sure you've got fuel, your equipment is working and you're ready to go," he said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced Friday the activation of Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System to stage resources in West Texas in preparation for Sunday's events. Ready to respond are four strike teams, each composed of nine firefighters and four fire engines. TIFMAS is a statewide agreement that allows fire resources to be activated and dispatched throughout the state.

Texas Forest Service Emergency Operations Coordinator Don Hannemann worked with TIFMAS Coordinator Joe Florentino to ensure the logistics of the mobilization ran efficiently.

Firefighters, team leaders, public information officers and other personnel receive the same training across the country so they can serve other areas when the threat is high.

"This mobilization works great," Whitley said. "We're all trained the same. If we order a task force or a dozer team, it's going to run perfectly. This is how we're able to be so successful in responding for Texas."

The 2011 winter wildfire season officially began Nov. 15. Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration in December, which has twice been renewed.