On July 13, 2012, Roxanne Hernandez, coordinator for Bastrop County’s Lost Pines Recovery team, spoke with KUT News about her experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Hernandez: Well the Lost Pines Recovery Team was assembled shortly after the start of the Bastrop County Complex fire and at the time that the fire started I was administrator of the County’s Lost Pines Habitat Conversation plan which is its Houston toad permit. Also, really the only person in the County that has a natural resources background, so, needless to say, the fire, well, the fire occurred almost entirely within Houston toad Habitat and as administrator for the county’s Federal permit, it pretty much made a lot of sense to also then bring me in to the post-fire response, as it relates to habitat and restoration and assessment of damage, etc. So, the recovery team is composed of local, state and federal entities, colleagues that I had before the fire and then other relationships that I have developed since the fire, all natural resources professionals, a variety of disciplines. We have all disciplines covered and our objective is to assess the impacts of the fire on the natural resources of the area and then determine whether we need to do any sort of intervention and if we do, what is that going to be and how is it going to work?
KUT News: A quick explain of what the Houston toad is, since some people might not be familiar with that.
Hernandez: Houston toad is a federally listed endangered species. It was listed in 1970 and it had the distinction of being the first amphibian to be listed on endangered species list.
KUT News: I did not know that.
Hernandez: Yeah. And Bastrop County, its habitat conservation plan was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2008, and then the implementations of the County’s permit started in about mid-November 2008 and has been active since.
KUT News: If I could ask that you kind of, you know, in a list form almost, just kind of describe what some of the impacts of this fire have been on the habitat.
Hernandez: Well, about one-half of the Lost Pines ecosystem burned. One estimate that I have is 74,000 acres of the Lost Pines, comprises the Lost Pines area and over, let’s see the burn area is, you know, right around 34,000 so almost half
of that ecosystem was lost in the fire. Well, I can’t say lost, because a good portion of that and I would have to refer to my documents, it’s been too long since I talked about some of this, but we looked at burn severity and those areas that were moderately and heavily burned, which is about 50% of the total, we had 100% tree mortality. So, that’s half of that forest is just gone. The sticks are still there, but the trees themselves are dead. And then the other half ranged from unburned to scorched to lightly burned and in those areas, it was more along the lines of, except for the unburned area, it was more along the lines of what you would see in a prescribed burn. So, it had significant impacts on the ecosystem and those heavily burned areas, which is about 11,360 acres, it consumed the duff and the litter and killed all the trees; top killed and consumed all of the woody vegetation and what we have seen since the fire is, there has been very limited natural re-growth in those heavily burned areas. That’s where we are focusing most of our efforts is in those heavily burned areas.
KUT News: Why so little re-growth?
Hernandez: The seed that you would generally have in the soil, the seed source, was consumed by the fire. It was too hot, they were either consumed or damaged to the point that they are not going to germinate.
KUT News: So, are you still noticing new impacts, you know, I mean, like as you continue looking on. I’ve heard about things, like, obviously, erosions and some people were talking about it even before the fires burned out completely. But, could you talk about some of the peripheral things beyond just the fire burning stuff?
Hernandez: With regard to environmental?
KUT News: Yeah.
Hernandez: Erosion. You already mentioned that, and that is one of our, we are putting a lot of time and energy into addressing the erosion issues, which we are doing through re-vegetation plans or bacious vegetation and one thing that we actually, we talked about it early on; we don’t have it in our master plan and we might need to amend our master plan, actually, to include it, because it’s something that has been on our radar and that is, if we do not manage the oak re-sprouts; the oak is re-sprouting from the root, the pine trees, once a pine tree is dead it’s dead, it’s not going to re-sprout. Well, oaks re-sprout, so what we have out there now are a lot of bushy type oaks which, if left alone so the foresters tell me, you know, the branches will all compete and eventually you’ll end up with a dominant one and, over time, it will turn into a tree. Well, there is so much, as I said, pines don’t re-sprout, so the oaks are getting a leg up in terms of growth over the pines and what we had before the fire was a pine dominated ecosystem with oak mixed in. There is the potential now to have an oak dominated ecosystem with pine mixed in. So, if our objective is to get to essentially pre-fire conditions, then we are going to need to actively manage the re-growth of that oak so the pine has an opportunity to develop.
KUT News: Do you have conversations like, how much should we do; how much can we do or is that a conversation that was had like at the inception of the whole thing; it’s like our job is try to bring us as closely back to its original state as possible?
Hernandez: I would say that doing nothing was not an option ever, for none of us. One of the reasons, you know, I think back to Colorado and wilderness areas and those are areas where you might just do nothing, in fact, quite likely because, you know, wilderness areas have different laws and regulations associated with them. But here, this is the Wildland Urban Interface and we had over 3,000 individual property owners directly affected by this fire. So, you have homes built in the forest, the forest has a catastrophic burn and then you have resulting erosion that now you have people’s homes that have the potential to be damaged as a result of that erosion. You have roads that are going to be damaged, drainage underneath those roads that has been damaged and infrastructure, you know, utilities. So you have to look at the whole thing, if you did nothing, you would end up with a lot more problems and a lot more cost in the end. Is it going to cost us a lot to fix this? Yes. Our initial estimate was $17.2 million. I know we’re low in that. But I believe and I haven’t quantified this, I believe, however, that the cost of doing nothing would exceed the cost that we are looking to do some restoration.
KUT News: I think about, you know –
Hernandez: We have four goals in our habitat recovery master plan. The first of those is erosion control and we are working on a project now, which will be implemented starting late November at the earliest, January one at the latest, to hydro-mulch somewhere in the order of, well, it’s going to be several thousand acres, I don’t have an exact number yet but it’s going to be several thousand acres. Apply hydro-mulch, which is going to contain a Lost Pines recovery mix, five native grasses and three native forbs with the objective of stemming further erosion. We also anticipate, so that’s one of the goals is control soil erosion and our approach to that is going to be the hydro-mulching.
KUT News: What’s hydro-mulching?
Hernandez: Hydro-mulching is, basically, it’s a slurry. If you saw what they did on the state park, you could see where it looks like they sprayed some stuff on the trees. That’s actually residual hydro-mulch. If you look on the ground, you are going to see a lot of green sprinkle top growth. That was the seed that they put in their mix. It’s not a persistent seed; it’s native, but it’s a nurse crop. It will grow for about three years, at which time is sufficient for other native grasses to become established and then by the time their established is when the sprinkle top dies out. So, anyhow, that was what they did for erosion control and, in fact, a lot of everything that the state park is doing, the recovery team is learning from and applying those lessons to our plans going forward.
KUT News: What’s the difference between the state park and the recovery team? You can just kind of draw the, what’s the, what are the divisions?
Hernandez: Well, the state park, we are very fortunate, actually, the County is very fortunate to have the state park in the middle of this disaster. Of course, it would be great if the disaster didn’t happen to begin with. The fact that it did and having the state park in the middle of it has been opportune for us and the reason is the staff, Greg Creasy in particular at Bastrop State Park has been very proactive in addressing the resource issues on the park. In fact, the burn severity analysis, which is the foundation for the, well, all of the planning that we’ve been doing has at its foundation the burn severity analysis and Greg Creasy is the one that conducted that analysis. If you look at our resources report, you’ll see some really colorful maps that show those different categories of burn. So, what Greg learns, the lessons that Greg learns on the park are shared with the recovery team and Greg is a member of the recovery team and so, even though we’re separate, separate funding entities and separate, what’s the word, different scopes, his task is to deal with Bastrop State Park. The Lost Pines Recovery Team’s task is to address the private property, which is 75% of the area. So, we work together. As I mentioned, we have on the recovery team, it’s local, state and Federal entities, Bastrop Soil and Water Conservation district, Bastrop County, Lower Colorado River Authority at the state level, Texas Forest Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife. At the Federal level, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas State University is also on the team. So, we have broad representation on the recovery team and, you know, it’s to get at everything. The Houston toad, the forest, the soils, the habitat, you know, the whole picture.
KUT News: I kind of took you off track with some questions, but you had a list of three things. The slurry was the first.
Hernandez: Oh, thanks. hydro-mulch is going to be a combination of the Lost Pines Recovery seed mix, which is five native grasses and three native forbs and that is mixed with mulch, kind of a paper type mulch and held together with the tack fire and then that is sprayed onto the surface of the ground. When that dries, it binds together and that does a couple of things; when it rains, it intercepts, the reason that you get erosion; when it rains and there is no protective cover on the soil, those raindrops directly hit those soil particles and that’s what causes their movement. So, if you have hydro-mulch on top of the soil or really anything, but hydro-mulch is particularly good, you have this on top of the soil, it’s intercepting those raindrops. So, there is not going to be that impact on the soil. So you are going to have less soil movement. When it’s, since it also has seeds in it, that hydro-mulch is going to stay intact, oh, I’ve been told somewhere between eight and ten months and so, during that time, those seeds have an opportunity to grow, so ideally, at the time that the hydro-mulch is now decomposed, you’re going to have green vegetation in its place. So, that’s one of our goals and can I tell you about the other three?
KUT News: Please do, yeah.
Hernandez: Okay. The first goal is controlling soil erosion, which we defined as hydro-mulching. The second is, and actually, this is also related to soil erosion, but its hand seeding in those areas where we cannot, do not have the ability to hydro-mulch. Third is reforestation with loblolly pine, as well as native hardwoods. The current efforts and I kind of doubt this is, I don’t see any reason why this would change, the efforts are on the loblolly pine. That’s what has been and is still in short supply. There are a lot of native hardwoods that are readily available from a variety or nurseries so, you know, we didn’t see a need to do anything on that front. So, that’s the third one, reforestation and then the fourth one is hazardous fuels mitigation in those areas where hazardous fuel loads still exist.
KUT News: And are there a lot of those areas?
Hernandez: Uh, within the burn area, based on, again, that burn severity mapping and what I know of the area, I’m guessing it’s about 5,000; not guessing, it is about 5,000.
KUT News: 5,000 areas where they exist or –
Hernandez: 5,000 acres.
KUT News: Gotcha.
Hernandez: That’s just within the burn perimeter, though. There are probably, oh, probably two to four times that number outside the burn perimeter and we’re looking at that, as well. The restoration efforts with the exception of understory thinning are all, we’re focusing, of course, within the perimeter of the fire because that’s where the impacts are. Understory thinning, that’s a much broader concern so that’s both within and outside the perimeter.
KUT News: What is it like to work on restoration and with, what I imagine to be probably a nagging concern that we might have other fires if we have more dry weather?
Hernandez: That’s a tough question. What’s it like? Well, nature, the nature of nature has changed and this fire, you know, I’ve heard people say it and I’ve read it a number of times; it wasn’t if it was a matter of when. Fire is a natural part of
our ecosystem and is this pines, the Lost Pines is a fire dependent ecosystem. The fact that we have suppressed fire for 100 or more years contributed to the extent of the devastation that we saw; it wasn’t the only factor, by any means, it was kind of like the perfect storm of things that came together. So, one of the, I believe we have an opportunity now to be, to help folks become active stewards of the land and actually, maybe not even stewards of the land, but active managers of their property because, you know, you might not care if deer or birds come into your yard, but if you care about your house not burning down, the things that you are going to do to help prevent your house from burning down are also going to benefit wildlife. So, everybody benefits in this and could there be another fire? Absolutely. Will, there, well, I mean in fact, 2009, Wilderness Ridge, you know, that burned and now, you know, two years later, well a little more than two years later but about two years later, then there was the Bastrop County Complex fire. Is it going to happen again? Yeah. And, hopefully, you know, if we have learned some lessons and are proactive in the way that we manage our properties and hopefully it won’t be catastrophic again.
KUT News: What are some good ways of managing your properties along those lines, like, what would you recommend people do?
Hernandez: I’m going to leave the Fire Wise stuff to the Fire Wise professionals. Um, but I can tell you that the Texas Forest Service has a lot of information on its website about Fire Wise construction and landscaping and then Fire Capping, which is a nonprofit organization I think, I believe that they are based in Bastrop. A lot of education will go to property owner associations, individual homes if people request that kind of evaluation and, you know, what are the right kind of plants? What are the wrong kind of plants? What’s flammable? What’s not? What’s a good distance to, you know, how far should the nearest pine tree be to my house, they go into all that kind of thing.
KUT News: Your experience since the fire, being in recovery, have there been any type of institutional hurdles or lessons learned or any kind of, anything that you think could have been done better or that was particularly challenging for you working on recovery?
Hernandez: You know, actually, this has gone better than I think I could have hoped. The agencies that I mentioned all working together, we are a team and I believe that every person on the recovery team would say, yeah we are a team. Everybody that I work with on the recovery team has a sense of ownership and a sense of, yeah, a sense of ownership and we want to make a difference. Our first principal is do no harm and that guided in the beginning, we developed, well, let me tell you. The recovery team, let’s see the fire started on September 4; on November, I want to say it was November 11, the Lost Pines Recovery Team published its resources assessment, so in less than two months, oh, I guess there were probably about 20, yeah, still about 20 of us on the core team. So, in less than two months you had this ad hoc group that just came together, some of us having never met before. I mean, I reached out to the folks that I knew as a result of being administrator of the Habitat Conservation Plan, because that has a pretty, I mean that has a broad scope, so I knew folks at different levels, agency levels. So, I assembled those and then that network, they reached out to others within their agencies that had different expertise and then, what do you know, here we just have this team. We work really well together and we produce things; we put together that resource report.
So, in two months, as I said, we have a document that’s an inch thick that addresses water quality, soils and erosion, forest impacts, vegetation impacts, considerations regarding cultural resources and then we developed best management practices for private property owners and we sent those out to, I want to say it was about 3,200 people that we submitted those. We put together a website and then in January, drafted Smith Covey actually with the Bastrop Soil and Water Conservative district who is the primary author on the habitat recovery master plan and that has been our guiding document for, you know, the last several months when we’re looking for private sector funding, as well as public sector funding. This is, I mean, it really is incredible in terms of how well this team has worked together.
KUT News: You mentioned water quality and it’s something we haven’t touched on. Has that been a concern? Does having a fire of this magnitude around –
Hernandez: There was a lot of concern initially about what, how water quality would be impacted and, frankly, all of the data that I have seen, LCRA has done water sampling and we haven’t had any significant rain events recently, I’d have to look at the reports to see when the last one was, but really, the only thing that we have seen; they didn’t find any heavy metals, the only thing that we have seen was increased sedimentation, you know, turbidity, silt. But that’s about it.
KUT News: That makes sense. Money, you were talking about trying to find public and private funds and you’re operating under the assumption that it might take more than even your initial estimates. How are you planning on getting funding? How does that work?
Hernandez: Well, the erosion control, the hydro-mulching project that I mentioned is going to be funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Services Emergency Watershed Protection Program and so we are working with NRCS, the County, me and folks working with me are getting rights of entry from private property owners so we can put hydro-mulch on their properties and then NRCS is going to do the contracting and the actual hydro-mulching. The County is working closely with the Texas Forest Service and Texas Forest Service has been instrumental in securing funding for the production of trees and we’re making some progress, they are making some progress on funding to, not only grow the trees, but also to get them planted because we’re talking hundreds of thousands of trees, 4.2 million, I think, is the total that they’re planning to grow out over five years.
Private sector, we have had actually Art from the Ashes, I don’t know if, yeah, okay, Art from the Ashes, they are nonprofit out of California called me up, I guess it was in December and said they wanted to come out here and support the efforts of the Lost Pines Recovery Team. So, we started working with them and had a great exhibition in Austin; that exhibition closed and it moved to Bastrop and was here for, I want to say it was about three weeks at the performing arts center and that was very successful. HEB Grocery recently donated over $32,000 to the Lost Pines Recovery Team to purchase the native seed and they are also going to be donating refrigerated storage for the seedlings, because you have to plant them in the winter and you can’t let them freeze and you can’t let them get too warm. What else.
KUT News: So you, I’m sorry, go ahead.
Hernandez: Alcoa Foundation, early on, granted the County $25,000 and we purchased erosion mats with those and worked with property owners to have those installed in drainage areas. The Austin Community Foundation, the County applied for $200,000 from ACF and that will go to support the goals of the recovery and we’re also looking at additional private sector funding because, depending on what projects we’re talking about, we are still $5 to $10 million short and, you know, in our goal to do everything. You know what, it may be that over time, in fact, one thing that we’ve noticed, the loblolly pines, we haven’t seen any coming up in the heavily burned areas. They are really coming up everywhere else and those areas where the duff layer is consumed but the soil and the seed in the soil was not damaged, they are sprouting, because they require bare soil in order to germinate. So, I think we are going to see a lot of natural regeneration with the pines, except in those heavily burned areas, which is about one-third of the landscape.
KUT News: So, that would mean that you might not need to shift funding to that area as much or –
Hernandez: Exactly. Thank you for finishing that for me. Yeah, the point there was that over the course of the five year plan, I think we’re going to find that needs we anticipated or needs that existed early on are being resolved by nature in the absence of our ability to, in the absence of funding and, thus, our ability to implement projects.
KUT News: So, if everything goes well, if you can’t get the funding for a particular project, it could be that Mother Nature will actually kind of see to some of the things you are hoping to spur on your own?
Hernandez: Absolutely, oh absolutely and I know that Mother Nature is going to get in there and take care of things, but the complicated part is the humans living in the middle of the burn area. When you, because humans are a part of the
landscape and we’re taking, you can’t separate the person from the environment.
KUT News: In a nutshell, are you confident that you’ll have funding for the things you need to do?
Hernandez: I’m pretty confident that we’ll have funding for the critical needs. I think we’ll just plugging away and keep working on finding those funding sources to implement the whole plan.
KUT News: To kind of rewind a long way, I was fascinated about what you were talking about the two different kinds of trees. It sounds like people might need to go in and kind of manage that oak growth, is there a conversation about that? About whether there is the money to do or that people, that y’all want to do?
Hernandez: That’s interesting because, of course, most of this is private property, well 75% of it is private property. So, individual property owners are going to make decisions about what kind of forest they want, you know, to regrow. Do they want it to be a hardwood with a few pine or do they want what they had before, which was predominantly pine with intermittent oak. So, you are going to have some individual decisions there. On the state park, the idea is to restore, more or less, what was there. Maybe not at the density, because we know that the density of the forest was greater than it was historically. Yeah, it depends on how you’re going to manage. Texas Forest Service working with the Farm Services Agency is doing, through the Farm Services Agencies emergency forest restoration program, they are replanting loblolly pines and that project is going to be implemented this winter and controlling that herbaceous, actually not even the woody growth, but the herbaceous growth to give the seedlings an opportunity to grow is part of the plan because there is going to be too much competition for the seedlings on their own, so we are going to have to control the vegetation around them.
KUT News: Just, but to ask you about wildlife, we touched on the toads. What was the impact of the fire on native wildlife in this area?
Hernandez: There is a section in our resource report about wildlife and the general conclusion is wildlife adapts pretty well to fire. Yes, you have losses of individuals. Populations on the other hand are generally not impacted. What you’ll find, we were discouraging people from feeding the deer within the burn area because whatever natural regeneration vegetative regeneration was going to occur, if the deer are there, they are going to eat that new green growth and that’s just make it take longer for the landscape to recover. So, we recommended that folks not feed deer and, you know, until we get some natural regeneration and then they are going to move back in. But the wildlife is going to go where the habitat is suitable. The Houston toad, for example, moved, there are areas that historically were breeding ponds and the habitat was suitable at that time. Well, the forest around those breeding ponds burned heavily and they were no longer suitable in terms of cover for the Houston toad. So, they found this year, and there was a lot of Houston toad activity this year, because we had a wet spring and that’s what they want, that’s what stimulates breeding. So, oh, the Houston toad, they found Houston toads in areas where they had never recorded them before. In other words, they responded to the fire also, by finding suitable habitat to support breeding and then, you know, next year or a couple of years, we’ll see what happens if they go back to the places where they usually, ponds that they would usually inhabit or if this resulted in a more longer term shift.
KUT News: What was your reaction when you heard that they had been moving around?
Hernandez: It makes sense, you know, it’s, I can only imagine, well, I can’t even imagine actually, but you know, a toad they burrow underground and they aestivate during the summer and hibernate during the winter. They come out for breeding. So last summer, as hot as it was, they were underground as deep as they could get and then we get the rains and, of course, then we had the fire and then we get the rain so that is the first time that they are coming up and I can’t imagine what goes through a toad’s head, but I can only imagine, you know, you go underground last year and everything is all nice and green and everything is great and then you come back up and it looks like you’re on the moon, okay? So, there must be, I don’t know, something, wildlife knows, hmm, this ain’t right, I’ll go somewhere where it is.
KUT News: That’s cool. The reason I asked how you felt is because I remember, I took a tour of the park pretty soon after the fire, they said it was safe for reporters to come in and it struck me that there were real questions about whether this would be the end of the Houston toad. I mean and so this is the first time that I’ve heard anywhere that this was this, kind of, what sounds to be, kind of, hopeful news about them managing –
Hernandez: It’s not over yet. This was definitely a catastrophic event, there’s no question; directly impacted the toad, no question. But it’s not over yet.
KUT News: What haven’t I asked you about or what haven’t we talked about that you would like to add, you know, just thinking about all these issues?
Hernandez: One thing that, in order for this restoration to be successful, it’s going to take a lot of work on the County’s part, the Lost Pines Recovery Team’s part and the property owners within the area. The recovery team and the County cannot accomplish any of these projects without the assistance of these property owners. If they don’t invite us, we don’t go and conversely, what the recovery team, I believe that, you know, if we’re talking in a large scale, the community needs the County and the recovery team, as well. So, it’s a very mutual need. We can’t provide the restoration tools, well, we can provide those tools, but they need to allow us to help them. It’s going to require partnerships and cooperation and collaboration at the County level within the recovery team and also with all the private property owners; we need each other. I mean, it really is a collective and communitywide effort.
KUT News: Have you had good experience with property owners or any challenges with property owners?
Hernandez: Actually, with respect to the rights of entry, we have, we’re about one-third of the way there and we’re only six weeks into our effort. So, yeah, I’m happy with the way that’s proceeding. We still have a long way to go, but we have made significant progress and I’m optimistic. People believe, I mean, every indication that I have and conversations that I’ve had, email correspondence, they understand that what we’re trying to do is to benefit everybody and I think, for many of them, they recognize that it truly is going to be a partnership but, as I said, you know, we need each other. In order to get this done, we all need each other.
KUT News: I guess, could I get you to, for a third time, introduce yourself and then maybe introduce yourself as though you were coming back into the story. So, the first time you can say Hi, my name is and give your title and the second time you can say, hi, once again, this is –
Hernandez: Okay. This is Roxanne Hernandez. I am coordinator of Bastrop County’s Lost Pines Recovery Team. Hi, this is Roxanne again.
KUT News: That was perfect. Thank you so much. Alright, well I’ve taken a lot of your time here and I appreciate you giving it to us. Could we grab a quick picture, maybe you could stand in front of the map or wherever you would like to stand.