Lankford Discusses Oklahoma Wildfires During Homeland Security Hearing

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s remarks on YouTube.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) questioned State and Federal officials on the issues that face Oklahoma when it comes to wildfire. Western Oklahoma faced dozens of wildfires over the last several weeks that sparked in the Texas Panhandle and blew into Oklahoma. In his remarks, Lankford highlighted his bill, the Direct Hire to Fight Fires Act, that would provide the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) permanent Direct Hire Authority to streamline the hiring process for skilled personnel in the firefighting or firefighting support capacity. Lankford noted that bureaucracy should not prevent Oklahomans from quickly responding to wildfires. 

Officials testifying today included Lori Moore-Merrell, DRPH, US Fire Administration Administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); David W. Fogerson, Division on Emergency Management and Office of Homeland Security Chief for the Nevada Department of Public Safety; Jamie Barnes Forestry, Fire and State Lands Director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources; Lucinda Andreani, Arizona Deputy County Manager and Flood Control District Administrator; and, Christopher Currie, Director Homeland Security and Justice for US Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

Transcript of Opening Statement

Mr. chairman,  thank you. Sometimes people think about wildfires, they don’t think about Oklahoma. They think about some of the areas of tall timber. I do want to remind folks, we do have tall timber in Oklahoma, as well on the eastern side of our state, and we have great areas of prairie grass on the west. February the 26th, just a few weeks ago, wildfires broke out in the state of Oklahoma and according to our forestry services, we had 152,000 acres that were burned just in February 26. In the days that are following that, we had a high fire danger day even yesterday. As that is continuing to be able to come just in that fire on February 26 in the time after that we had 19 homes destroyed. We had four injuries that were there. A lot of, a lot of livestock and a lot of fence line through that area.

Our neighbors in Texas, where one of the fires actually started and moved into the panhandle of Oklahoma, lost over a million acres just at the end of February and early in March. This is wildfire season in Oklahoma. It’s when we see a lot of the fires actually take-off quickly with dry vegetation and high winds coming through. That’s why Senator Barrasso, Senator Manchin we’re holding hearings on wildfires as well this week. As we continue to be able to talk through the other issues that we can to try to resolve as many things as we can. We do have to address areas of mitigation, that’s grazing that’s prescribed burns, that’s timber harvesting, that’s removing hazardous fuels, and the hazardous fuels for us in Oklahoma is actually the red cedar, which actually just explodes when fire gets near them as well. 

So, it is a big issue for us. It is an invasive tree it takes off quickly, and if they’re not actually mitigated when a wildfire breaks out it becomes a major, major issue for us to be able to spread the fire and to be able to accelerate it. You may not know this but Oklahoma occasionally has severe weather. I know that may be a shock to everybody. So occasionally when we have severe weather that lightning will also break out a fire and that has become a long-term issue for us as well. So, a lot of our critical infrastructure continues to be able to deal with how they can manage those issues. We also have fires that break out like it happens at times with our electrical power grid and so that is an issue that we still need to be able to resolve and it will be hopefully a part of our conversation today. On grid wildfires as well as occasionally a lightning strike that hits an oil battery, or whatever it may be or just to be able to catch some of the grass on fire and it takes off from there. 

Among our witnesses today there are some they’re coming from states with a lot of federal land. Federal bureaucracy I would say should not prevent us from quickly responding to wildfires. We do have some additional contracting issues as far as the date of contract. So for instance in Oklahoma, our date of contracting for Wildfire assistance begins on March the 1. Did I mention that our wildfires came in on the end of February this year? And so just getting federal assistance to be able to come in because for our wildfires happen to come in before the contracting date set created additional problems for us. So, we do have some red tape we’ve got to be able to work through. 

When disaster strikes we should be able to respond to those. One of the issues that Senator Daines, Representative Bice, and I are working on to remove some of the red tape is on the hiring issues. We have a bill called Direct Hire to Fires Act that we are working to be able to make sure that we can actually get to some of those firefighters faster to the task on it to be able to resolve some of the hiring issues so we’re not having to have those delays, just in the hiring to be able to get folks on the ground. So appreciate the hearing. This is a big issue for us nationally. It is a tremendous cost to the federal taxpayer, but it’s a bigger cost to those that are actually impacted by the fire on the ground.