Central Texas 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.

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.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Wildfire season is in full swing. And due to Texas’ ongoing drought, the state remains at exceptional risk for wildfires.

Wildfires spring up quickly and spread unexpectedly – making real-time information important. Twitter is an important resource for wildfire updates. And Facebook is an information clearinghouse for area residents in times of disaster.


Smoke will be rising in southwest Austin today near Buda. Austin Water is performing a prescribed burn with help from the Austin and Buda Fire Departments.

The burn will cover over 600 acres of land west of Buda at the Onion Creek Management Unit. The area will burn for up to seven hours, or until around 5 p.m.

KUT News

Scientists say Texas could have a bigger wildfire problem this year as drought conditions persist.

Hotter temperatures and drier conditions are lengthening the fire season, leading to larger, more frequent wildfires.

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.

Nathan Bernier, KUT News

A popular campground in Bastrop that was devastated by the Labor Day wildfires in 2011 will be reforested with the help of Boy Scouts. Almost half of the 5,000-acre Griffith League Scout Ranch was destroyed by flames.

The Scouts will team up with the Texas A&M Forest Service to plant about 300,000 loblolly pine seedlings over the next two years.

American Red Cross

The American Red Cross has released a free mobile app to help people stay aware of wildfire danger.

The app gives users instant access to a so-called “blaze tracker” that issues alerts when conditions are favorable for wildfires and when a wildfire has begun within 100 miles of any location designated by the user. Users can also monitor multiple locations to keep up-to-date with what might be happening in a region susceptible to wildfires where friends or family live.

"A lot of information about wildfires is really hard to get and to take in. Wildfires are big, covering hundreds of acres, and also really fast-moving... [This app] actually even allows you to see the path of a fire, where its perimeter is, and what's happening. And that really makes the information about these big fires a little easier to digest," Sara Kennedy, Director of Communications for American Red Cross Central Texas Region, says.

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.


Hurricane Isaac will probably stay too far east to bring rain to Central Texas, but forecasters believe it will bring windy weather which will then make way for higher temperatures.

Hot, dry and breezy weather is the same combination that we had last Labor Day weekend before the devastating wildfires. But Lower Colorado River Authority Chief Meteorologist Bob Rose says things aren’t quite the same.

"We’re not looking at as extreme of critical fire weather conditions as we had last Labor Day weekend," Rose says. "Fortunately this summer we’ve had periods of rain from time to time, we have a little bit greener vegetation and the ground has a little more moisture in it. So the conditions going into this weekend are already not nearly like what they were last year."

KUT News

Texas Department of Public Safety Completes ‘Roadcheck 2012’

Earlier this month, DPS troopers and civilian inspectors joined forces to make the roads safer in Texas. Inspecting more than 8,000 commercial vehicles, over a three-day period, the department issued thousands of citations and removed 1,763 vehicles and 243 drivers from the roads, according to a statement issued yesterday.

The program checks 18-wheelers, buses, and other commercial vehicles for things like unsafe brakes and tires. Drivers’ logs, driving time limits and licenses are also inspected.

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.

As the deadline to apply for federal wildfire disaster aid approaches, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  is sharing some statistics that underscore the fires’ impact: The disbursement of some $36 million in wildfire aid, including $13.2 million in grants, and $19 million in low-interest “disaster loans.” And the agency is urging anyone who hasn’t yet filed a claim to do so before Friday.

FEMA public information officer Bob Howard says the agency’s grants have gone to different needs: $10.7 million to rental assistance and grants to rebuild homes, and $2.5 million to cover lost personal property, medical care, and even funeral expenses.

Photo by KUT News

The Travis County Office of Emergency Management released an after-action report on the Labor Day weekend fires.  Travis County's emergency management coordinator, Pete Baldwin, says given the number of fires and the resources that were allocated, firefighters did an adequate job.

“We had six major fires burning that one day, that Sunday, and we had fires all around us.  Bastrop was burning, Williamson County, Burnet County were all running fires," Baldwin told KUT News. "If we had had access to state resources, such as air assets or ground assets, we could have done a much better job.  But all of those assets were tied up on other fires throughout Texas that day.”

Travis County Report Assesses Wildfire Response Successes, Failures

Travis County's Office of Emergency Management has released a report outlining what went right--and what didn't--in the response to the Labor Day weekend fires. Travis County had six large fires on September 4th, including the Steiner Ranch and Pedernales fires.  57 homes were destroyed and the fires burned about 7,000 acres. The report praised responders for doing their best with the local resources at hand. The report says state and federal resources were not available because of all of the other wildfires burning across the state.

The report laid out several communication failures. It says more public information officers were needed to get accurate information out to residents more quickly. The report even cited a "rumor mill at the shelter due to lack of information and conflicting media reports." It also suggested more social media networks need to be created to get out information to the public.

Hasan Hearing Wednesday

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which puts victims of Texas wildfires in hotels  while they search for more permanent housing, is coming to an end.

The program will officially end on December 9th in the six counties designated for assistance. Those counties include Bastrop and Travis counties in Central Texas, Cass and Marion in East Texas and Montgomery and Waller counties in the Houston area. 

"We feel confident that we can transition those families that are still living in hotels and motels into a more permanent situation," says Ray Perez, a FEMA public information officer speaking to KUT News from Bastrop.

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

Possible Austin Energy Rate Hikes

The Electric Utility Commission of Austin will meet this evening at six to discuss Austin Energy’s proposed rate hikes from August. Members of the public are invited to speak at tonight’s meeting. The event will be held at Town Lake Center on Barton Springs Road. There will be an additional special-called meeting this Thursday. Read KUT's report on the proposed rate changes.

Bastrop Relief Concert