The Austin American-Statesman published a report online last night that Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr stayed in Colorado for a Labor Day weekend golfing trip when the Central Texas wildfires began Sunday. The paper reports Chief Kerr stayed in contact with her department by cell phone 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."
But Kerr's absence at the start of this emergency is raising some questions.
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.
The Statesman reports Austin City Manager Marc Ott defended Kerr, saying it is possible for any city official to be on vacation when an emergency strikes. He also said she has very capable assistant chiefs.