Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News

Our Friday coverage of the Hidden Pines fire is here.

A wildfire that started Tuesday in Bastrop County continues to spread, thanks in part to high, shifting winds on Wednesday, officials say. 

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.


Austin area residents may see some smoke today as the result of a prescribed burn.

Officials warn that smoke may be visible west of Buda and south of FM 1826 from mid-morning until sunset. Citizens are urged to keep the prescribed burn in mind and exercise caution when contacting emergency services about any smoke.

With 15,000 firefighters deployed and three dozen major wildfires currently burning in five Western states, this would seem to be a wildfire season for the record books. And in one tragic aspect, it is. But by most measures, 2013 is the second-mildest fire season in the past decade ... so far.

Here's the season to date, by the numbers (provided by the National Interagency Fire Center) and with some historic statistics for comparison.

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.

Kate McGee, KUT News

Update: Bastrop County officials say the STAR Flight helicopter is being brought back out to help extinguish some flare ups in the area. Earlier this afternoon, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative said it had restored power to all its customers.

The fire, now 252 acres, is 75 percent contained, according to Bastrop officials.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Central Texas isn’t taking any chances when it comes to wildfires.

Today, Travis County unveiled a new STAR Flight helicopter designed to fight wildfires, and tomorrow the city and the county are teaming up for a series of public meetings for their “Community Wildfire Protection Plan.”

Christopher Ebdon/Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/av8pix/6861164814/

Update: The Austin City Council has approved a $1.17 million contract with Metro Aviation to outfit APD's new chopper.

The council had already approved the purchase of a new helicopter, but this morning the council approved a proposal to equip the chopper with accessories, including firefighting equipment. You can read more below. 

Original Post (March 19): A new helicopter for Austin Police could be equipped with thermal imaging, a search-light, night vision goggles, water buckets and other accessories, if council gives the green light to spend the cash.

Ann Choi, KUT News

A youth organization that worked as a secondary emergency-response team during the Central Texas wildfires has a new name.

Environmental Corps, a service program for American YouthWorks, is now the Texas Conservation Corps. American YouthWorks CEO Pac Smith announced the rebranding today, as nearly two dozen new members were sworn in at the Capitol.

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

Every day without measurable rain worsens the risk of wildfire here in Central Texas. And the Austin Fire Department is stepping up its efforts to be ready.

The Austin City Council Thursday approved a five-year agreement with the Texas A&M Forest Service to get more and better firefighting gear, at a lower cost, through the National Wildfire Program.

courtesy flickr.com/morclaud/

A wildfire about an hour north of the Austin area has grown to 450 acres, but a Texas A&M Forest Service official says it might end up being even larger once final measurements can be made.

The fire is holding at 75 percent contained after firefighters started getting help from lighter winds.

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. 

George Burns, Oprah WInfrey Network

Good morning. The National Weather Service says Austin’s due for a high near 70, along with scattered clouds and maybe a stray thunderstorm.

Lead Story: Federal prosecutors say Lance Armstrong won’t face criminal charges, despite the cycling star’s confession last month to Oprah Winfrey that he did use performance-enhancing drugs.  

The U.S. Attorney in the case says the decision was made last year not to press charges, and Armstrong’s recent televised comments haven’t convinced prosecutors to re-open the case.

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.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Among the somber anniversaries of 2012: the one-year anniversary of the Central Texas wildfires.

Thousands of people were forced out of their homes on Labor Day weekend of 2011 by the massive wildfires and clouds of black smoke. Altogether, the wildfires claimed two lives, more than 1,600 homes, many pets and livestock, and thousands of acres of land and forests.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Update: KUT News has received a copy of the full Steiner Ranch report from the Travis County Fire Marshall's Office. You can read the report here

Original post (10:34 a.m.): The 2011 fire in Steiner Ranch was probably due to electrical lines, according to the Travis County Fire Marshal.

Fire Marshal Hershel Lee issued a statement on his office’s investigation into the Steiner Ranch fire, which destroyed nearly two dozen homes and damaged several more. “[The] fire was most likely started by electrical lines that came into contact with one another, arced and ignited grass,” reads the statement. The conclusion was made based on burn patterns, witness reports and more. The lines were owned by Austin Energy.

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.

Flickr user davidhofmann08, bit.ly/Qj4MVy

Travis County will spend $2.4 million on a helicopter to fight fires. County commissioners approved the purchase today.

The county already has three EC-145 helicopters, but Danny Hobby with Travis County Emergency Services says this UH-1H helicopter will be different.

“It’s specific to firefighting, which is a great benefit to us," says Hobby. "We found that during the Labor Day fires that we were limited in having [the state's] aircraft available to us, because the entire state was burning up. Now we’re going to have an aircraft available to us that is a fire aircraft.”