Bastrop officials asking state for fire recovery funding
Leaders say cleanup from fires far from over and $20 million fund nearly exhausted.
Bastrop County leaders are pleading for recovery help from the state, which to this point hasn’t sent a dollar to Bastrop for recovery efforts.
BASTROP — Fifteen months after wildfires cut a black swath through Bastrop County, the money for the recovery is almost gone. Now county leaders are pleading for help from the state, which to this point hasn’t sent a dollar to Bastrop for recovery efforts.
“The job’s not done and we’re just about out of money, and that is the truth,” Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said Wednesday during a news conference that served as both an update on the recovery and a hat-in-hand request for state aid. “We have got to have some more help.”
The cleanup from the Sep- tember 2011 fires, which scorched more than 33,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,700 homes and other structures and caused more than $325 million in insured losses, is far from over, Pape said.
But the county has nearly exhausted the roughly $20 million in federal money that it secured after getting $5 million in matching money from the Lower Colorado River Authority after the fires.
The federal government has millions more earmarked for Bastrop’s recovery, said County Commissioner Clara Beckett. To get it, the county needs more matching money, and its budget has been
tapped out from firerelated expenses.
Pape said officials are asking the state Legislature for $7 million to help continue erosion control and replanting in Bastrop State Park, plus $7.25 million for the county.
State money would allow the county to obtain roughly $21 million in federal money to do things such as rebuild county roads torn up by debrisladen trucks, and perhaps more importantly, to begin systematically clearing dead vegetation and thick underbrush from unburned parts of the county to reduce the risk of another catastrophic fire.
Pape said the county will also have to pay to clean fire debris from roughly 30 properties that the county took over after their owners abandoned them and didn’t pay their taxes.
Beckett said that after Bastrop County received a federal disaster declaration, the federal gov- ernment “set this money aside … to prevent a similar disaster from happening again, and it would be a shame if we couldn’t get access to that money.”
The Legislature comes back to work next month, and after making deep budget cuts during last year’s session, lawmakers will be facing pressure to restore money for bigticket items like public education and Medicaid amid a somewhat sunnier economic climate, said state Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, who represents Bastrop County.
There are no guarantees that the Legislature will come through, he said. “We’re going to do the best we can for the people of Bastrop County to try to make those funds available for them.”
He said he’s had conversations with the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices about an emergency appropriation for Bastrop, which would get money flowing faster.
For now, the recovery work continues. Tens of thousands of dead and dying trees have been cut down and sent to a private company that turns them into fuel pellets. About 64,000 tons of debris — the remains of hundreds of homes — have been sent to an Austin recycling center and an equal amount should be removed from a site next to Texas 71 by March, said Mike Fisher, Bastrop County’s emergency management coordinator.
And 300,000 native loblolly pine seedlings are now in the ground, covering more than 500 acres in the state park and on private land, said Jim Rooni, chief regional forester for the Texas A&M Forest Service. More seedlings are coming before the winter planting season ends, and Fisher said letters are being mailed to about 900 property owners to ask permission to plant on their land by the end of January.
Construction crews are busy throughout the county, and Beckett said 715 homes have been rebuilt so far.
The General Land Office, which received nearly $20 million in federal housing money for Bastrop, thinks it can build or rehabilitate about 150 homes and is now sifting through about 200 applications, said Heather Claybrook with the office’s disaster recovery program.
Claybrook said meeting all the federal requirements has been a slow process — “a lot has to take place before you see hammers swinging,” she said — but construction on the first homes should begin in late February or early March.
Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape: ‘We have got to have some more help.’
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Sean Watson holds wildfire area seedlings.