Several days after the fire quickly spread through Bastrop County, the fire is at 70 percent containment.
After nearly two weeks of raging flames which authorities said reached 4,582 acres, the Hidden Pines Fire is now completely contained after widespread rainfall, according to KVUE's news partners at the Austin American-Statesman.
At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Bastrop Judge Paul Pape said residents could begin to re-enter the fire zone to assess their property. Homeowners and residents will need ID or other forms of proof that they do reside in the area to get into the area. Later Tuesday evening, insurance agents and investigators will also be allowed into the area to start assessing damage. The fire has destroyed over 60 structures.
About 445 displaced residents were registered with the Smithville Recreation Center as of Tuesday.
Firefighters can see the light at the end of the tunnel in their battle against the Hidden Pines Fire.
Judge Pape said that while people are being allowed back into the area, Tuesday was not the day to start the cleanup of their property. Officials asked residents to put off the start of the clean-up of their properties for another couple of days. Bastrop Sheriff Terry Pickering said that "in all practicality, this re-entry probably shouldn't be occurring until Thursday morning."
Authorities said approximately 1,300 trees still need to be cut down, which could take a couple of weeks.
Bluebonnet Electric Coop said Monday afternoon that all power had been restored to homes in the fire zone.
Firefighters making progress on Hidden Pines Fire
And while firefighters continued to make progress, the danger from the fire still existed Monday. The Texas Forest Service said there was an elevated fire risk Monday and there was a 75 percent probability for ignition.
The latest update on the status of the Hidden Pines Fire and news on how volunteers are helping the firefighting effort.
CHAPTER 1 - HIDDEN PINES FIRE
Hidden Pines Fire 15 percent contained
Firefighters began battling the Hidden Pines Fire -- originally called the Luecke Fire -- on Tuesday afternoon. It was a busy day for Bastrop County crews as three other fires burned in the county.
The Hidden Pines Fire was the only one that remained by the end of the day, forcing families from their homes and blowing smoke into surrounding counties.
Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said the early indications show the fire may have started due to a farming accident -- specifically, a shredding incident. On Monday, he confirmed the fire did start on the Luecke Farm. According to KVUE's partners at the Austin American-Statesman, Pape told reporters Tuesday that investigators are looking at two possible causes: a farming accident, or an "intentionally-set" burn pile in violation of the county's burn ban.
Hidden Pines Fire 80 percent contained
Authorities said the name was changed after the fire spread to Buescher State Park, and that they did not want to attach the name of one property to the entire fire.
CHAPTER 2 - EVACUATIONS IN PLACE
The fire forced about 20 families to evacuate last Tuesday. Approximately 400 homes had to be evacuated due to the fire. About 445 displaced residents were registered with the Smithville Recreation Center as of Tuesday. At a Tuesday morning press conference, officials announced that residents who were previously evacuated from all burn areas will be allowed to reenter their property.
According to Smithville Independent School District, 47 students and eight staff members have been displaced by the fire. Of those 47 students, 11 have lost their homes in the flames.
More than 60 structures have been reportedly destroyed by the fire. The damage had been visibly confirmed by law enforcement or firefighters in the area. The list included multiple homes on Long Trail, Old Antioch Road, Rolling Pines and other streets.
The State Bar of Texas says it has a legal disaster hotline available for victims of the Hidden Pines Fire. The hotline number is 1-800-504-7030.
Attorney Bill Rossick, who represented homeowners after the 2011 Bastrop fire, held a free legal clinic to answer homeowners' questions Tuesday night. He said it's too soon to consider lawsuits.
"In terms of resources for people who don't have insurance as a possible lawsuit -- again it's a little bit on the early side. But I will reassure those folks that possible cause is being pretty significantly investigated on all different angles at this point," Rossick said.
Rossick said homeowners with insurance should file a claim as soon as possible. Homeowners told KVUE that insurance adjusters were allowed in the burn zone to start assessing the damage.
Smithville Independent School District said Thursday afternoon that it plans to observe a regular dismissal time for all campuses and regular bus routes for those in or near the areas unaffected by the fire. The district will continue to hold students living in the areas affected at their campuses until picked up by parents or guardians for safety precautions. Starting on Monday, Oct. 19, alternate locations will be used to pick up and drop off students affected by the fires.
- Home Depot: 6:30 a.m. pick up/4:45 p.m. drop off
- Wal-Mart: 6:40 a.m. pick up/4:35 p.m. drop off
- Bucees: 6:50 a.m. pick up/4:25 p.m. drop off
- Exxon Tiger Tote: 7 a.m. pick up/4:15 p.m. drop off
Nine homes destroyed by 3,500-acre Hidden Pines Fire
The fire forced the evacuation of the MD Anderson research facility near Buescher State Park and the park itself Tuesday afternoon. The Texas A&M Forest Service deployed fire-fighting aircraft to the area and created a retardant line along the MD Anderson property.
"There's about $500 million worth of real estate combined in that facility," said Mike Fisher, Bastrop County Emergency Management director. "So the fire moved into that campus and literally right up to the foundations of some of those buildings, but thanks to the hard work of the firefighters we pre-assigned to that location, none of those permanent facilities have been harmed."
Sheriff Pickering said that the evacuations in the area went smoothly from the beginning. Blue Bonnett Electric Cooperative shut off power to some of the area to protect firefighters and assets as they continued to fight the fire. But by Sunday evening, Blue Bonnet had restored power to multiple areas around the fire and restored almost all of it by Tuesday.
CHAPTER 3 - FIGHTING THE FIRE
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Bastrop County officials said the fire had grown from 375 acres in the morning to more than 1,500 acres by mid-afternoon. By Friday morning, the fire had burned more than 4,500 acres and was 25 percent contained. And as of Sunday the fire had reached 4,582 acres in size and was 60 percent contained.
The fire changed directions and ran into rough terrain for fire fighters to battle the blaze. Fisher made the point to say that the only time he's seen it this bad was Labor Day 2011. "Believe it or not, we were a little drier then than we are now," he said.
Bastrop Judge Pape announced Wednesday he had issued a disaster declaration for the area of the fire. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in Bastrop County, meaning Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance will be available for residents.
Abbott expressed a "depth of gratitude for the men and women from the state of Texas who have been working tirelessly to address this growing challenge over the last few days." Abbott said additional aircraft have been deployed to the area including two more Blackhawks and two more Chinook helicopters to fight the fires. Additional resources from around the country also pitched in. A national incident management team arrived Friday and "dozer resources" from Georgia and Florida also headed in during the next 24 hours after that.
Abbott said the state requested a "fire resistance grant" from the FEMA and the request was granted immediately. The FEMA grant will be for up to 75 percent of the costs for fighting the fire.
Abbott asked that all Texans keep the people in Bastrop in "your hearts and minds and prayers." He asked that everyone "say a prayer in support for those who don't have a bed tonight."
Officials at the governor's press conference said folks should be ready for a seven- to 10-day fight against the Hidden Pines Fire. Fisher with Bastrop County said the firefighting will continue around the clock and indicated 12 to 15 agencies are coming to help firefighters in the area.
At a public meeting Thursday evening, Bastrop Judge Pape said all forces were active and Thursday's work was not as bad as Wednesday when "things went to hell in a hand basket pretty quickly."
The Texas A&M Forest Service called in a DC-10 air tanker to help battle the fire. The VLAT came from the West Coast and started spraying the area Friday afternoon. Blackhawks began pulling water from a nearby lake and performing water drops on the blaze on Wednesday morning.
The Bastrop County Sheriff's Office said Blackhawks dropped hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the fire throughout the weekend. In addition, Travis County Emergency Services said STAR Flight's EC-145 helicopter dropped 103 loads of water and their Huey dropped 31 loads of water on the fires at different times last week.
On Friday, officials were once again worried about the potential for major changes in the weather. A front was expected to move through the area around midday Friday and bring with it a change in the direction and speed of the winds. Due to that, Fisher said that his crews were changing their tactics, somewhat.
The work of the firefighters helped open up parts of Antioch Road, Old Antioch Road, Felix Drive, Majestic Forest Trail, O'Grady Road and Cottletown Road so residents could return home Saturday and Sunday.
Bastrop County officials had previously opened up some parts of Cottletown Road and O'Grady Road to allow residents back into their home. Safety checkpoints were established in the areas for residents as firefighters continued to battle the nearby blazes.
Bastrop Judge Pape repeatedly urged over the entire time of the fire that even though residents were being allowed back into their homes, if they were asked to evacuate again to do so immediately.
Mike Fisher, Bastrop Office of Emergency Management coordinator, said in the media briefing Saturday afternoon that firefighters will be in the neighborhoods of those affected by the fire for at least the next two weeks.
A total of 275 firefighters and 215 utility crews have been working on the fire since it began.
Still, even as firefighters were making progress against the Hidden Pines Fire, the Bastrop Sheriff's Office said Saturday it had issued six citations for people breaking the burn ban.
"Why on Earth would anybody willfully start a fire with these kinds of conditions?" asked Pape. "That is the most irresponsible act anybody could do, and we will throw the book of anybody who is guilty of willfully violating the burn ban."
Firefighters had worked quickly since Thursday when the fire was just 25 percent contained. Despite the best efforts of firefighters, as of Saturday the fire had taken out forty-eight structures including homes and other structures.
Throughout fighting the fire the biggest issue has been the weather. After the fire erupted and began to spread, weather conditions gave the area the perfect mix of winds and low humidity to let the fire grow. Even as firefighters were knocking the fire back, Friday's weather brought another change that forced them to change tactics and reinforce areas they had already worked on.
As Monday rolled around, firefighters continued to make progress against the fire, getting it 70 percent contained. Still, Parks and Wildlife officials closed off Buescher State Park including Park Road 1C East to give the area more security. Re-entry into the entire area of the fire was still being planned out as of Monday morning. The Texas Forest Service warned though that re-ignition was possible as there was an elevated fire risk on Monday, with a 75 percent probability for ignition.
On Monday, residents were able to get to their homes near Rolling Pines Drive and Old Antioch Road in Smithville. Of the approximately half dozen homes there at least one was destroyed. As of Monday night, only residents are able to get beyond those intersections. The area is covered with a couple of inches of ash, burned cars and surviving trees.
CHAPTER 4 - CLOUDS COVER CENTRAL TEXAS
There were multiple reports of smoke flowing into Hays and Travis counties Wednesday morning due to the fire.
Several images of downtown Austin show buildings obscured by haze.
The City of Cedar Park also reported smoke in the area from a brush fire in Jarrell Wednesday.
KVUE Storm Team Meteorologist Jared Plushnick said winds could gust over 20 miles per hour Thursday and shift the flames and smoke.
Emergency call centers said they have been inundated with concerned calls. Only call 911 if you see an active fire, not if you just smell smoke.
CHAPTER 5 - HOW YOU CAN HELP
Kate Johnston, director of community services with the Office of Emergency Management, feels confident that after the fire in 2011 and the flooding during Memorial Day weekend, they're prepared to help the people who live here.
"We're equipped and we're ready to roll," Johnston said. "We have all the contacts; we vetted all of our organizations that we know we work with, so we're prepared to go down that path again and excited to be part of this as always, because we are the community. We feel for this community."
Johnston said the volunteer reception center will be set up in a couple of days. They'll need boots, masks, gloves and shovels, but mostly they're saying they'll need money.
Sixty-four structures have been destroyed in the Hidden Pines Fire.
For those watching the events unfold in Bastrop County, the Bastrop County Chamber of Commerce asks that people make monetary donations for long-term recovery. Go to this website, where 100 percent of the proceeds go towards recovery.
The chamber said it had received enough toiletries that were previously requested for firefighters.
The fire has displaced many animals. Go here to learn what kind of donations the Bastrop Animal Shelter needs at this time.
Contributing: Christy Millweard, Cori Coffin, Michael Perchick, Amber Downing, Mark Wiggins, Shannon Murray, Tony Plohetski, Alex Vickery, Natalie Groves, Shawna Reding, Steve Newton and Tim Kephart