Bas­trop of­fi­cials ask­ing state for fire re­cov­ery fund­ing

Lead­ers say cleanup from fires far from over and $20 mil­lion fund nearly ex­hausted.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Dave Har­mon dhar­mon@states­man.com

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.’

A con­trac­tor work­ing for the state in Au­gust un­loads dead burned-out trees taken from pub­lic right of ways de­stroyed by wild­fires in Bas­trop. RODOLFO GON­ZA­LEZ / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

LAURA SKELDING / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Lady Bird John­son Wild­flower Cen­ter’s Sean Wat­son holds wild­fire area seedlings.

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