Politics of fire: How Texas leaders, lawmakers used year since Bastrop

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist KENNETH NULL

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on September 6, 2012 at 6:33 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 7 at 3:15 PM

AUSTIN -- It's been a year since the images of wildfire in Bastrop County were permanently seared into the memories of millions of Texans. The reactions from lawmakers in the fire's immediate aftermath was nearly universal.

"What happened in Texas this year is inexcusable and unacceptable," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) chided federal officials at a congressional hearing in October of 2011 inside the Texas Capitol.

Along with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), McCaul took FEMA leaders to task over cumbersome paperwork requirements local officials said delayed federal response. As a result, today officials are no longer required to fill out that paperwork while a fire is ongoing.

"Instead, FEMA officials now go to local agencies to assist after a fire is under control," said McCaul communications director Mike Rosen. "Bastrop County has been receiving reimbursement within three to six weeks of submitting its requests."

The hearing also addressed the issue of aircraft used to control wildfires, including a DC-10 operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and questions over the time it took to deploy to fight the Bastrop fire. Rosen says efforts have been undertaken to expedite response, as well as to secure grants for firefighting equipment such as breathing apparatuses and truck chassis.

"The call when needed contract for the DC-10 aircraft was renewed at the beginning of this year," said Rosen. "Until the U.S. Forest Service commits to exclusive use contracts Texas will continue to have access to the tanker jets only when they are not in use in other states. Until this time, Congressman McCaul’s staff continues to monitor wildfire responses by the federal government."

Months before the Bastrop fire began, the Texas Legislature voted to cut $34 million from the Texas Forest Service, including $16 million from TFS grants used to provide equipment and training to volunteer fire departments. Added to massive wildfires racing across all parts of the state, the Bastrop fire stretched already strained resources to the limit.

"When they're hurting, we're hurting as a state and as a whole," State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) told state emergency response officials at a January 2012 hearing of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security.

"It's going to be very difficult," said State Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt (R-Lexington), whose district includes Bastrop. Kleinschmidt says the current focus is on fuel remediation, encouraging property owners to pitch in along with state efforts.

When it comes to the next budget session, Kleinschmidt supports restoring at least some funding to the Texas Forest Service, but admits that in the wake of previous budget cuts across all state agencies, lawmakers will be faced with difficult choices on how to distribute revenue.

"There were hundreds of millions of dollars of Texas emergency response spent on fighting wildfires last year," said Kleinschmidt. "Hopefully that won't happen again, but we need to go back in and look at restoring those funds."

The Texas Forest Service launched a new web app earlier this year, making updated fire threat and safety information accessible via Internet devices and smartphones through the Texas Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (TxWRAP).

The app was unveiled in May at the launch of the Texas Wildfire Prevention Task Force, consisting of 28 organizations and agencies under Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples charged with stopping fires before they start through actions such as prescribed burning.

On the recovery side, the Texas General Land Office is coordinating recently freed federal dollars for rebuilding. Available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), those whose homes were destroyed and can't afford to rebuild them can apply for up to $125,000 for a new home.

"Twenty million dollars towards housing, which we anticipate will be between 150 and 200 homes, and then the remaining $5 million for Bastrop will go towards erosion control activities," explained Katy Sellers, chief liaison for the GLO's Disaster Recovery Program.

The deadline for applications is September 28, which means the window is closing fast. Application information and eligibility requirements are available on the General Land Office's website.

For rebuilding help -- CLICK HERE.

For TxWRAP web app -- CLICK HERE.

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