Wildfire Updates Saturday, September 10

Sep 10, 2011

Update at 5:27 p.m.

Governor Rick Perry missed a news conference he scheduled with reporters at 4 p.m. in Bastrop today. Perry’s office distributed an email to media last night saying he “will give remarks and be joined by emergency management officials for a media availability following a tour of wildfire damage in Bastrop County.”

A spokesman for the Governor’s office says Perry was absent because of logistical reasons. Lucy Nashed told KUT News that the original location chosen for the news conference, 392 McAlister Rd, was in a neighborhood that was not open to the public.

Local officials wanted to hold the press conference instead in front of Roscar Chocolates, which is no longer in a restricted area, but for Governor Perry to get there would have required everyone to wait “a really long time,” she said.

Texas Emergency Management chief Nim Kidd explained that the purpose of the news conference was to explain how Gov. Perry’s emergency hotel voucher program was progressing.

“This press conference was to recognize the actions and the organizations that have come together in order to get the people out of shelters, and we’ve done that by issuing 182 vouchers,” Kidd said. “That was the purpose of this press conference.”

Perry last visited Bastrop on Monday, skipping a high-profile Tea Party forum to tour the scene. The next day, Perry visited the Steiner Ranch subdivision west of Austin, where a wildfire destroyed 23 homes.

Other elected officials did make an appearance at the press conference, which was held in front of a Bastrop home that had been gutted by flames. State Sen. Kirk Watson urged people to be patient and obey the requests of public safety officials.

“While the fire moved fast, the process of recovery will not be as fast,” Watson said.

Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, a regular fixture at daily press briefings on the 34,000 acre wildfire, said officials were working hard to get people back in their homes.

“We’re working on the process to get you back in and bringing Bastrop back to the place where when you drove down here, all you saw was the lovely pines,” McDonald said.

In other developments:

An officer with Travis County Constable Precinct 2 died today after he fell ill while working on wildfire damage in Steiner Ranch, KXAN reports.

Bastrop County has posted an updated list of homes that are confirmed to have been destroyed. An additional 122 homes have been added to the list, bringing it to 622. Officials estimate almost 1,400 homes have been lost.

A Level Orange Ozone Watch day has been issued for Sunday. That means it’s likely the air quality will be low enough that people with respiratory illness and the elderly should limit outdoor activity.  

Anyone whose home was destroyed or damaged by wildfires can now register for federal assistance at www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

Update at 11:15 a.m. 

A 34,000 acre wildfire in Bastrop County is being kept at bay and is now 40 percent contained. Firefighters are now focusing on protecting undamaged structures within the burn zone.

“Crews continue to make progress,” Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher said at a morning news briefing. “We’ve got active fire in the interior around neighborhoods and even in some rural pasture land type settings.”

Fisher says fire crews flew over the burn zone last night with infrared cameras to give them an idea of where the hotspots are located. He says the situation has improved since their last infrared flyover two days ago.

A US Forest Service DC-10 jet airliner would not be useful in fighting the fire, officials said, because it would require evacuating firefighters who are working to restrict the fire’s advancement on homes still untouched by the flames.

In somewhat of an indication of the advancements being made against the stubborn wildfire, the entire stretch of Highway 71 will be reopened today in Bastrop County.

The number of confirmed addresses destroyed by the wildfire rose by 122 buildings today to a total of 622. Officials estimate the total number of destroyed homes to be closer to 1,400. A list of the newly identified homes is posted at the Bastrop Convention Center and will be eventually be posted on the county’s website.

Evacuated residents are growing increasingly frustrated with having to wait to return to their homes. Some of them shouted at emergency management officials during a briefing today, after it was announced that firefighters will accompany insurance adjusters into some evacuated areas of the burn zone to conduct damage assessments.

The Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office released the identity of the second person killed in the Bastrop Complex Fire. 58-year-old Vickie Keenan’s body was found at 253 Ponderosa Loop. Her death was announced on Tuesday.

Bluebonnet Electric says it plans to restore power to the western portion of the Tahitian Village neighborhood today, a Bastrop community whose residents were allowed to return this week.

The utility’s CEO, Mark Rose, said about 3,300 households remain without power. But he said that number should start reducing more rapidly, once crews move downed power lines and restore utility poles destroyed by the wildfire.

“We will have a big day today,” Rose said at the morning briefing.

In response to unconfirmed reports of looting, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s office suggested those rumors were overblown. Only one case of looting has been confirmed, and it was several days ago in at the Union Chapel fire in Cedar Creek. Residents in that neighborhood are all being allowed to return home today.

A boil water order has been lifted in about 70 percent of Aqua Water’s service area. The company has recovered all of its water processing capacity and about 85 percent of its distribution capacity.

The Smithville Independent School District will open its doors to employees and students at 7 a.m. on Monday morning. Counselors will be available.  Twenty-three Smithville ISD staff members were displaced and nine lost their homes.

A non-denominational service is scheduled for tomorrow at 10 a.m. in the Bastrop High School cafeteria. Public safety officials began today’s briefing with a Christian prayer.

“This is not just a physical war, it is a spiritual war,” Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald said.

Governor Perry is scheduled to return to Bastrop County today to tour the devestation again. He was last there on Monday. The next update from public safety officials is scheduled for 10:30 tomorrow morning. 

Earlier: The White House has signed a federal disaster declaration for Texas in the wake of several wildfires, most notably the 34,000 acre wildfire burning in Bastrop County. The declaration frees up federal disaster relief funds. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had complained the process was taking too long. 

Gov. Perry has announced an emergency hotel voucher program for victims of the Bastrop wildfire. In a statement, Perry said that up to $250,000 from the Texas Disaster Relief Fund will be distributed for hotel costs. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs will make $350,000 available in the form of flexible assistance cards. Those are basically debit cards that can be used to cover essential expenses for families. Volunteers will begin taking applications today at 10 a.m.

City of Austin animal control officers are helping the elite Texas Task Force 1 search and rescue team as it scours the 34,000 acre burn zone in Bastrop County. Any animals found in the area are being brought to the Austin Humane Society or the Bastrop Animal Shelter and will be held there until their owners reclaim them. Texas A&M University vets will provide medical care to wounded animals. 

In case you were planning on driving through the area today, Bastrop County has posted the latest road closure updates on its website.  TxDOT says it hopes to reopen Highway 71 today.

Want to help? Here’s a way you can double your donation. The daily deals site Moolala is partnering with Harte-Hanks to provide $20 donations for just $10.  Hart-Hanks will continue matching donations until the total reaches $2,500. You can buy the $20 donation for $10 here.

If you want other ways to help, the Austin Disaster Relief Network has a list of items needed and other ways you can volunteer on its website.

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