Bastrop hopes lawmakers pump cash into wildfire defense

Bastrop County fire mitigation
Bastrop County fire mitigation

BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Many people think now is the time to take steps to prevent another wildfire. Monday, the Texas A&M Forest Service told lawmakers most fires start when people live close to forest.

Mike Fisher from the county’s emergency management knows the extent of the fires in 2011 and 2015.

“[They] began in this area and traveled to the south and down through this area,” as he traces the routes on a map hanging in an emergency management office.

He’s planning for where the next fire could start. History tells him fires spread north and south with the winds.

“We’re concentrating on the area that did not burn,” said Fisher.

His goal is to clear a 2,000 foot fire break along FM 1441, just west of the old burn marks. The route would go east to west, stopping fires when they get blown north or south. “So fire departments can catch a little break,” he says.

Fisher has six crews on fire mitigation, clearing the brush and thicket underneath the forest. This work costs $500 to $600 an acre. There are 900 square miles that could go up in flames in Bastrop, or 576,000 acres. His budget is $4 million. He gets $3 million in FEMA grants and $1 million from state appropriations.

Fisher wants 1,000 feet on each side of FM 1441 d to be clear of debris. The more clutter there is on ground level, the easier the fire can go up into the tree tops.

“When it does that, it’s not defendable. There’s not much you can do about it,” said Fisher.

Lawmakers from the joint committee on urban and county affairs heard from the Texas A&M Forest Service that fire mitigation works: fire doesn’t spread as fast in areas where mitigation work has been done. Bastrop County hopes to squeeze money out of lawmakers who also have to worry about floods and hurricanes.

Fisher hopes the state will chip in to keep the program going longer because in Bastrop County, it’s not “if”, but “when” the next fire comes.

The county is still working to recover from the 2011 wildfires. The Texas General Land Office announced a new grant to help. They’re allocating $200,000 to the county. The money is supposed to be used for infrastructure projects still needed after the fires nearly five years ago.

The Austin City Council is also looking into ways to reduce the risk of wildfires. Last week Council Members passed a resolution to strengthen the city’s wildfire defense strategies. Council adopted a wildfire protection plan back in 2014.

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