State Finalizing Plan for Federal Wildfire Aid
State officials are working on a plan for spending millions of dollars in federal aid on wildfire recovery. Bastrop residents gathered last night to get a sense of the plan so far, and give their thoughts.
It’s been nine months since Bastrop firefighter Michelle Baker sat in her firetruck – and watched her house burn. The image is seared into her memory.
“It was a sheer firestorm,” said Baker. “It was raining fire, it was blowing fire. It was coming from the sky, it was coming from the ground.”
Like more than 3,000 other Bastrop families, Baker lost her house in that firestorm. She was uninsured. Almost 300 other homes lost in the Bastrop fires were also uninsured. There was some help from FEMA and private groups, but Baker says it was a drop in the bucket. Her family is still living with her sister. And she says, people like her are wondering what’s taking so long for this new round of federal assistance.
“We’ve gone through a summer, into a winter and we’re headed back into summer and we’re moving back into wildfire season of all things. And we’re still kind of waiting on the ball to be passed,” said Baker.
Now, the Texas General Land Office is beginning to get the ball moving. It has about $19 million in federal money it plans to use to help low- and moderate-income families in Bastrop rebuild. Homeowners need to meet certain criteria to qualify. For example, the house that was damaged or destroyed needs to have been a primary residence. Homeowners have to be current on property taxes, or on a payment plan. There’s also down payment assistance people whose house was destroyed and want to buy a new one somewhere else.
“I don’t think it gets any better than this,” said Christine Files, president of the non-profit Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team. While she likes the plan, she says there are some lingering questions. At last night’s meeting, several people wondered what help there would be for renters who lost their homes to the fire.
“They are the group that is being left out here,” said Files. “If there is any way that this plan could integrate renters into it, I think it would substantially benefit Bastrop County. Because the renters that are here are wanting to stay here.”
But the General Land Office’s Katie Sellers says the rules attached to the federal money probably won’t allow any help for renters, at least not in this program.
“The regulations dictate so much that it’s really geared toward people who owned their homes at the time of damage,” said Sellers.
The GLO’s plan also includes about 5-million dollars for infrastructure repairs and improvements, like roads and erosion controls. The county will figure out how it wants to spend that money.
The Land Office hopes to get federal approval for its plan within a few months.
For the people still waiting to rebuild their homes and their lives after so many months – people like Michelle Baker – they can only wait a bit longer to see if they’ll make the cut.
“I am so appreciative for everything we’ve received and been given,” said Baker. “But we still need help.”
The application process is expected to open in late summer. Just in time for the one year anniversary of the firestorm that claimed so much in Bastrop.
The public comment period on the GLO’s plan runs through next Friday, June 8th. Click here for details on how to submit comments.