Bastrop Wildfires

Photo by Matt Largey/KUT News

The 2015 wildfire season is fast approaching. In Colorado yesterday, federal officials talked about the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires across the country.

Here in Texas, the threat of wildfires is not as high as in other states, but that’s because of recent flooding. 

Experts like Tom Spencer, who heads the predictive services department at the Texas A&M Forest Service, say this year, the upcoming wildfire season is causing them less stress.

Martin do Nascimento/Texas Tribune

From The Texas Tribune:

Greenery has begun to cover the scars of a devastating fire that ripped through 32,000 acres of Central Texas three years ago. Feeding on tinder and trees withered from a searing drought, the Bastrop County Complex Fire burned for nine days, destroying more than 1,600 homes, before it was brought under control.

Also lost to the blaze was 96 percent of Bastrop State Park, a 6,565-acre home to the loblolly Lost Pines Forest and the endangered Houston toad.

As shrubs and seedlings have taken hold in the scorched park, however, park officials face a new quandary. An abundance of whitetail deer, they say, is threatening the new growth. Park officials will soon begin allowing the deer to be hunted, saying it is necessary if the park is to bounce back.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Today marks two years since the start of the Labor Day wildfires – the worst in Texas history.

The fires in Bastrop, Pflugerville, Spicewood and Steiner Ranch in September of 2011 killed two people, destroyed 1,600 homes and burned tens of thousands of acres of land.

KUT produced an oral history titled “Forged in Flames” last year for the first anniversary of the fires. Go to KUT.org to hear the documentary, produced by KUT's Emily Donahue and the KUT News staff.

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given Texas $31.2 million to help cover the costs of the devastating wildfires that spread across the state in 2011. The money will go to help the recovery in Bastrop and at least nine other wildfires during that year.

FEMA says the funding covers about 75 percent of the overall costs including materials, equipment, meals, air support and logging.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center made another delivery this week of 4,000 drought-resistant loblolly pine saplings to Bastrop County. Bastrop’s pine forests were ravaged by a wildfire in 2011 that destroyed 32,000 acres.  This was the third delivery for the Wildflower Center, bringing to about 15,000 the number of saplings they've contributed for reforestation. 

UT's Campus Enviornmental Center

University of Texas at Austin students who are part of the Campus Environmental Center are helping to reforest the burnt lands of Bastrop by sending the city more than 40,000 loblolly pine tree seedlings.

Vlad Codrea, a graduate research assistant at UT, is overseeing the project at the tree nursery at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Thursday, the Campus Environmental Center will extract the tree seedlings from their containers and package them to be sent to Bastrop.

Codrea said the project actually began in March 2011, before the Bastrop fires, when he first asked for funding for a tree nursery from UT's Green Fee Committee. The Committee reviews environmental projects pitched by UT students and awards grant money so the students can complete these projects. Codrea was awarded a $54,198  grant over four years.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

People who lost their homes in the Bastrop wildfires last year have until the end of business today to apply for federal housing aid.

As KUT News previously reported, The Texas General Land Office says far fewer people than anticipated have applied for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aid.

The Texas General Land Office is distributing about $20 million that could help as many as 200 fire victims.  Each applicant could get as much as $125,000 to put towards rebuilding their homes.

Another $5 million is going directly to Bastrop County for erosion control and other fire mitigation projects.

But at last check, less than 90 people had applied—although 2,100 homes were destroyed in the fire.

Teresa Vieira for KUT News

The Texas General Land Office says far fewer Bastrop fire victims have applied for federal housing aid than anticipated.

Friday is the deadline for Bastrop fire victims to apply for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Aid to fix or rebuild their homes.

So far, only about 85 homeowners have applied — although some 2,100 homes were destroyed in the fire.

“Definitely that is one of the drawbacks of federal funding is that it takes a long time to get down to the people and so the state didn’t have that available to them until just a few weeks ago to even put this application out. And so some people, when a year has passed, they’ve found other ways to recover on their own because they just can’t wait," says Katy Sellers, the land office's  Liaison Manager for Disaster.

Lea Luchsinger

Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the Central Texas wildfires.

Thousands of people were forced out of their homes last Labor Day weekend by the massive wildfires and clouds of black smoke.

The fires went on to claim two lives and destroy more than 1,600 homes and thousands of acres of land.

Chris Barron is the Executive Director of the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals' Association. He recalls getting the first notification about a fire in Pflugerville.

"We sent a brush truck from my fire department up there and a tender, a water tender up there, and, next thing you know, Spicewood had a major fire also and then Steiner Ranch had a major fire and so it was just back to back to back," Barron says.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

A recent case study examines the details of last September’s Bastrop wildfire. The fire destroyed 1,600 homes and burned 32,000 acres.

But there seems to be some confusion over whether the report of the fire that’s being released by Bastrop County is the final version.

Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher helped author the case study. Earlier this month, he presented the report to county commissioners. And he plans to release it to the public later this week.

But the Texas Forest Service – another partner in putting the study together – says the version that Fisher has released is not the final version. And, it says, it may not be completely accurate.

Photo by KUT News

Today the Austin Community Foundation is awarding more than $830,000 in grant money from the Central Texas Wildfire Fund.

The money was donated by people from across the country and raised through the “Fire Relief” concert held last October.

Nine organizations are receiving between $2,000 and $200,000 to help with debris cleanup, rebuilding homes and other needs in Central Texas towns affected by the Labor Day wildfires.

Electric lines photo by Natasha Lee for KUT News; Perry photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News; Bastrop photo by KUT News

Beginning of the End of Austin Energy Rate Hike Discussion?

The Austin City Council is meeting again today to talk about Austin Energy rates.

On Monday, three council members proposed a new plan for raising rates that they hope will bring a conclusion on the topic. Their plan would increase residential rates in five tiers based on how much energy is used. It would also adjust the proposed rate hikes for churches and schools.

The City Council has held 10 work sessions on Austin Energy rates since March 7. Members of the council have said they expect to have a final decision by late May or early June.

Protesters were arrested for occupying UT President Bill Powers' office yesterday.
Photo by Nathan Bernier for KUT News

UT Students Protest for Workers Rights

The Daily Texan reports a total of 19 protesters, not all of them students, were arrested yesterday for occupying UT President Bill Powers’ office. They were there in protest against alleged sweatshop-like conditions where UT apparel is produced.

The protesters are members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition and included 17 students and two members who are not students.

According to the Texan, the demands of the protestors was a request for the University to switch to the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization that conducts investigations of working conditions in factories. A statement on the WRC homepage specifically mentions their goal to protect the rights of workers who make clothes.

Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force, flickr.com/usairforce

Thousands of emergency responders from across the state are convening to San Antonio for the three-day Texas Emergency Management Conference.  The conference and its workshops will focus on the relief efforts from last year’s drought and wildfires.  

Dry conditions and high winds still threaten numerous Texas counties still at risk of wildfires. The conference’s topics will range from lessons learned from the Bastrop County fires to how to better use social media in disaster relief efforts.

Gov. Rick Perry will give the conference’s keynote address. In addition to wildfires, Perry will talk about the potential decision by the Air Force to transfer a squad of C-130 planes from Fort Worth to Montana.

Photo by KUT News.

City Commission to Review Proposed Bags Ban

The City of Austin’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission is scheduled to take up a proposed plastic bags ban tonight. The draft ban would ban single-use plastic and paper bags starting in January 2013. And from this June to December businesses would have to charge ten cents a bag.

Tonight’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission meeting starts at six thirty at City Hall. The Austin City Council would still have to vote on the ban before it could take effect.

Recovery Work Resuming in Bastrop

Recovery work will resume in wildfire-damaged Bastrop County. Federal officials yesterday cleared Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative to get back to work clearing trees, picking up debris and putting up electric lines and meters in burned areas.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

It was only twelve weeks ago that dangerously dry conditions fueled a horrific wildfire in Bastrop County. The flames scorched more than 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,600 homes. Two people were found dead.

This morning, it is apparently safe to burn again in Bastrop.

The Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management posted on its Facebook page that county commissioners have voted to lift the burn ban. But emergency officials added a word of caution.

Photo by KUT News.

Bastrop County: On the Road Back

Bastrop County is holding its second open house to talk about wildfire recovery. Everyone affected by the Labor Day wildfires is invited to the come-and-go event. Local, state and federal officials will be on hand to answer questions about debris removal, utilities, FEMA aid and more. Bastrop County officials say more than 250 families attended the first open house. Tonight’s meeting is from 6-8 p.m. at the Smithville Recreation Center.

AISD Board Discussing Facilities Plan Tonight

The Austin Independent School District’s board has a full agenda tonight. The board will hear some possible scenarios about how facilities could be used during the 2012-2013 school year.

Photo by Emily Donahue for KUT News.

High Fire Danger Today

A wind advisory is in effect for Central Texas until 6 p.m. We could see wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. A red flag warning is in effect from noon until 7 p.m.  A dry cold front has arrived, bringing strong winds and drier air meaning any wildfires would spread fast. Today's also going to be a lot cooler than it's been lately. High temperatures will only be in the mid 70s.

Photo by KUT News.

Bastrop On the Road to Recovery

Bastrop County has been in recovery mode for weeks now, but county commissioners this week approved an official wildfire recovery plan. The plan outlines what the tasks for which local agencies will be responsible. The first priority is clearing all of the debris. Bastrop County will also hold several town hall meetings to talk about the recovery efforts. The  first one is is scheduled for October 10th.

Photo by Lizzie Chen for KUT News.

The current budget standoff in D.C. has some serious implications for disaster relief efforts here  in Central Texas. As lawmakers scramble to find a short term fix, one thing is becoming clear:  If FEMA doesn't receive new funding, aid work will cease.

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