Austin fire chief out of town as wildfires raged outside cityBy Tony Plohetski and Patrick George
September 8, 2011
As fires tore through hundreds of Central Texas homes, Austin officials dispatched nearly 200 of their firefighters to help across the region and issued an urgent request Sunday for 25 off-duty firefighters to report to work.
But Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr stayed in Colorado for a Labor Day weekend golfing trip, leaving subordinates largely in charge of her department's response while keeping in touch by cellphone and email.
Officials said Tuesday that her absence from the disaster did not hamper firefighting efforts, which were coordinated by county departments, and that she remained involved from afar in her department's response.
A top assistant also said that Kerr offered early on to return and that he emphasized to her that the fire was not in the city's immediate territory.
Kerr, who was set to return to work today, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that she did not come home earlier because flames were not in the city.
"All of the fires are not in the city limits of Austin," Kerr said. "If the fires were in the city limits of Austin, that would have been a whole different thing, and I would have made my way back as fast as I could have."
Tuesday afternoon, several fires broke out in two subdivisions near Duval Road in Northwest Austin, but those were put out by evening.
Kerr's decision to stay on vacation has renewed questions among some firefighters — nine of whom reportedly lost their homes in Bastrop County, the hardest-hit area in the unprecedented fires — and from union officials about her leadership.
Kerr has already faced mounting criticism internally that has centered on the department's new hiring process, which has been plagued by a series of setbacks.
Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, wondered why Kerr could not have ended her trip early and pointed out that Gov. Rick Perry left the presidential campaign trail to return to Texas.
"It's a 100-year event, with fires of this magnitude," Nicks said. "It would be better if the chief was here to at least provide guidance to the citizens" about fire safety.
He added that numerous Austin firefighters cut short their vacations and Labor Day weekend activities to report for duty when the fires worsened Sunday.
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