Investigative Committee Unveils Findings on 2024 Panhandle Wildfires

Starting in late February 2024, the Texas Panhandle and a portion of western Oklahoma endured devastating wildfires for nearly three weeks, claiming the lives of three Texans and over 15,000 livestock, and destroying homes, businesses, farms, and ranches across more than one million acres. These fires made history as the largest in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott (R) issued a disaster declaration for 60 of Texas’ 254 counties on February 27, 2024, prompting the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) to mobilize extensive state resources to combat the wildfires.

In The Wake

In response, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) issued a proclamation on March 12, 2024, creating the Investigative Committee on the Panhandle Wildfires. The committee, comprised of three state representatives and two citizen members, included:

  • State Representative Ken King (R-Canadian), Chairman
  • State Representative Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock)
  • State Representative Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi)
  • Jason Abraham (Public Member)
  • Ashley Cash (Public Member) [Later changed to James Henderson]

The committee was tasked with investigating the factors contributing to the wildfires, the allocation of resources for disaster preparedness, and the effectiveness of the wildfire response. Additionally, they examined the coordination among local, state, and federal government entities regarding wildfire prevention, disaster preparedness, and response. Their findings were to be submitted in a report no later than May 1, 2024, along with recommendations for legislative solutions and actions to prevent future wildfires.

The committee held three days of public hearings in Pampa, Texas, northeast of Amarillo. Witnesses included representatives from various state and local agencies, local government officials, special interest organizations, and energy companies.

The Report

The report, released last week, provides an in-depth analysis of the events leading up to the wildfires. It details the history of wildfires in the Panhandle, the conditions preceding the wildfire, and the source of ignition, as well as tracking the fire’s progression across the state. It also includes preliminary estimates of the economic losses to local communities and the state, along with government assistance to address these losses in both the short and long term. Key findings include:

  • Major Causes of Wildfires: The 2024 Panhandle wildfires were primarily ignited by electrical power lines and deteriorated poles. There were also allegations that poorly regulated oil and gas infrastructure contributed to fire ignition.
  • Inadequate Response Coordination: Coordination among local, state, and federal entities during the wildfire response was ineffective, leading to delays in deploying crucial resources, including aviation support.
  • Volunteer Fire Departments (VFDs): Most fire responses in the Panhandle rely on volunteer firefighters, but VFDs are underfunded and lack the necessary equipment and training. Outdated communications systems also inhibit effective wildfire response.
  • Economic and Environmental Impact: The wildfires caused significant economic losses, with initial estimates exceeding $1 billion. This included the loss of livestock, crops, homes, and wildlife habitats. Infrastructure, such as water wells and fencing, was also severely damaged, impacting local economies.
  • Recommendations for Future Prevention:
    • Enhanced oversight of oil and gas operators and utilities.
    • Improved fire prediction and modeling.
    • Increased funding for VFDs and modernization of their equipment.
    • Establishment of a state-owned firefighting air fleet to respond quickly to wildfires.
    • Better job protection for volunteer firefighters who are often at risk of losing their primary employment due to emergency response duties.

What This Means for the Coming Legislative Session

The 89th Legislative Session, set to begin in January 2025, will likely address many findings from this report, potentially including specific appropriations for many of the issues described.

Notably, the report includes the following statement by the committee:

“The Committee generally believes residents of the Texas Panhandle are asking for less government intervention, not more. This philosophy is particularly applicable to current reliance on federal resources in preparing for and responding to wildfires. Therefore, while the commitrtee will make several recommendations in this report calling for action by the Texas Legislature, varuious state agencies, and other parties, implemenation of its recommendations must be accomplished: (1) with careful consideration and attempts to avoid unitended consequencxes that may occur as a result of newly enacted or amended legislation, regulation, or guidance; (2) in a way that miniomizes impositions of burdens on VFDs, local governments, and the communities they serve; and (3) without a reduction in funding of other legislative initiatives or current programs that benefit residents of the Texas Panhandle.”

2024 Wildfire Report, Page 16


While it appears the investigative committee has fulfilled its initial charge, it is almost certain that many issues identified in the report will see attempted fixes in the upcoming 89th Legislative Session.

How these fixes will be addressed is something that Texas Policy Research will closely monitor to ensure they align with the five liberty principles that should be considered when formulating public policy.

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