Central Texas wildfires

Disaster declaration signed; weekend benefits planned

Disaster declaration signed; weekend benefits planned

(Video dated September 5, from the Griffith League Boy scout camp in Bastrop)

President Obama signed a federal disaster declaration late Friday night. His signature now frees federal funds, resources and FEMA support for the victims.  State officials expect FEMA personnel to be on the ground in the affected area within hours.

The Bastrop fire is now 40% contained, officials have not added any more lost homes.

A number of benefit events have been scheduled for the weekend. If you would like to help, we have several lists available and KXAN has an excellent list as well.

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September 9, 12:30pm

The Bastrop fire stubbornly refuses to die out. 34,038 acres have burned and 844 firefighters continue fighting it.

Bastrop Emergency Operations head Mike Fisher reminded those attending what is called a press conference, but what in reality is a gathering of evacuees in Bastrop, that this is still a dangerous fire."We have fires scattered throughout that whole 34,038 acres," he said. "Trees are still burning."

While the fire is only 30% contained, 844 firefighters kept any more homes from burning overnight. 1,386 homes have been lost, and the counting is not yet finished.

In the meantime, the evacuees are becoming frustrated. It's not hard to understand. These are people living lives on hold. They have been in shelters for almost a week; many know they have lost their homes but cannot return in order to start over.

To his credit, Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald has brilliantly managed the information exchange. He asks for patience, prays for those in need, and has answered nearly every question with a calm, confident assuring manner. "We will get through this, and we will come out stronger than before," he said to applause.

Bastrop residents want to move forward, and so, despite the fire, school will open again Monday, with school buses picking up children at shelters across Bastrop. The people insisted.

Declaring Disaster

Lt. Governor, now acting-Governor David Dewhurst (due to Rick Perry's return to the presidential campaign trail) sent a letter Wednesday to President Obama requesting a Federal Disaster Declaration and he says he sent another this morning. As of noon today, none has been declared. "We need help yesterday, we need help earlier," Dewhurst said.

It's important because a disaster declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to come on site and begin helping those in need. It also provides federal equipment and resources. No one suggests the declaration will not come, it just cannot come fast enough.

Resources are stretched thin.

The numbers are astounding. 19,500 fires have burned 3.6 million acres of Texas this year. 4,300 structures have been lost. Just yesterday the Texas Forest Service, the lead agency in controlling wildfire, responded to 19 new fires. In the past week 186 fires burned over 156,000 acres.

In Montgomery County, north of Houston, a 15,000 acre fire destroyed 75 homes and is just 60% contained. Cass County, in northeast Texas lost 40,000 forested acres to a fire that is still burning out of control in timber country.

Wrapping up Austin

Around Austin things have largely calmed down and some good news came this morning. The losses in Steiner Ranch turned out not be as bad as first reported. 23 homes were lost, not 24, and only 3 other homes were damaged, not 30. The numbers changed as residents returned and reported what they saw. That fire is now 80% contained over 162 acres.

Firefighters completely contained the Spicewood fire overnight and are now dousing hotspots. 34 homes were lost in that Lake Travis community in western Travis County.

The city of Leander continues searching for the arsonists responsible for a fire that destroyed 11 homes. Police are still looking for four teens seen running from the source of the fire.

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September 8, 11:30am

As firefighters walked into the moonscape that was 38,000 beautiful acres of Bastrop, they found damage far more extensive than first believed. Over 1,386 homes burned in the Bastrop fire, and officials say they are still counting.

"Utter devastation. It's heartbreaking to me as fire chief that on my watch, lost this many homes," Bastrop Fire Chief Henry Perry told KXAN News. "Can't explain it."  

It's a fire that is still only 30% contained. If there is any good news to be gleaned from all the devastation, it is that no more lives were lost.

That will not be of much comfort to the families of two killed by the fire. Michael Farr, a 48-year-old City of Austin employee reportedly went back to his home after being evacuated. His body was found outside his home. One other unidentified person, unrelated to Farr, also died.

Today Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald announced a reentry plan will be ready today, and he asked for patience from weary, displaced residents.  "The most important thing we're fighting here is fighting to save lives. Respect your law enforcement. Respect your firefighters. Let them go in and do their job."

In Steiner Ranch, west of Austin, residents tried to return to some semblance of normal. School buses picked children up on the corner, parents went back to work, the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse opened. Still, normal is dependent upon your perspective. 54 families came back to damaged or destroyed homes, yet firefighters saved over 300 homes. “We were really fortunate we could save as many as we did. We really wish we could have saved them all, we really do, it just didn’t happen,” Lake Travis Fire Chief Jim Lindardos told KXAN.

They also returned to a community eager to help. Volunteers drove up and down streets offering food and cleaning supplies. Yesterday it became apparent that the supplies far out paced the need, now extra donations are on their way to Bastrop.

The Moonglow fire in Leander, northwest of Austin, is now down to a few hot spots. Arson is to blame, and police are looking for four teenagers—two boys and two girls seen running from where the fire began near the Mason Creek subdivision. That teenage game resulted in the loss of 11 homes, with 8 more damaged. Anyone with any information is asked to call Leander P.D. at 528-2800.

This video shows aerial footage of the fire spreading across Leander.

34 homes burned in Spicewood, located in far western Travis County. That fire is now completely contained and evacuated residents began returning to find whether they still had a home to live in.

As residents returned home, gawkers descended upon the scene of the fires, slowing their vehicles along busy streets, pulling over to park and take pictures and generally making embarrassing pests of themselves by getting in the way. Firefighters and police ask people (that means you and me) to get over our voyueristic desires and leave them to do their work. These fires are not yet extinguished.

To make matters worse, at least one firefighter witnessed a gawker flicking a cigarette butt onto the ground, an unfathomable gesture of stupidity (hot cigarette ashes start fires—in case that person happens to be reading this).

Donation drives and fund-raisers are planned all over Central Texas. If you would like to help in an easy way, donate cash. The American Red Cross can use it to buy exactly what is needed much cheaper than you can.

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September 7, 12pm

Over 400 Firefighters now have a handle on the largest Bastrop fire, which has consumed 576 homes inside 38,000 acres. Bastrop County officials report the fire is 30% contained. Cooler days and calm winds allowed firefighters to get in front of the blaze, beginning the process of slowing it's advance. No additional neighborhoods have been evacuated.

The Bastrop fire killed two people over the weekend. Officials have not identified them pending notification of family.

Children headed back to school in Leander today as firefighters finish putting out hotspots inside the Moonglow flare-up. Investigators believe the fire was started by teen arsonists and are asking for the public's help in identifying them.

Evacuees returned to their homes in Steiner Ranch at noon Tuesday. Power has been restored to most of the subdivision and the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse has even reopened. The fire is still only 45% contained, but it is no longer threatening homes.

Smoke has blanketed many parts of Austin as a weather "inversion" is keeping the smoke low to the ground. You can see, and more obvioulsy smell the fires all over town. Health officials are asking people to use common sense by not not exerting themselves if they are in a smokey area, and to avoid exposure if you have heart or lung disease.

Donations of cash and clothing have begun coming in. If you would like to help, CultureMap compiled a list of organizations helping victims and events raising money for victims.

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September 6, 10:30pm

The Bastrop fires have turned deadly. According to Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, two people were found dead Tuesday. There is no information on how they died, nor are officials identifying the victims other than to say they were not public safety personnel. Next of kin had not yet been notified.

The Bastrop fire continues to grow, now reaching 34,000 acres, and it is still burning completely out of control. It covers an area 24 miles long and 20 miles wide with 0% containment. The fire has now claimed 550 homes and rages unabated. 

"You all [in Bastrop] are the tip of the spear today. This is the worst wildfire season in the history of the Lone Star state," said Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at an afternoon press conference.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department released this video today showing how fast this fire can move through dry grass and trees.

Bastrop school leaders cancelled classes for the rest of the week as weary firefighters brave the flames and more evacuations may have to be called; 20 neighborhoods have been cleared already.

In Leander, law enforcement officials say the fires there may have been intentionally set by arsonists. The Leander fire marshal described four teens, two boys and two girls as suspects. The Moonglow fire, as it's called, caused an estimated $1.4 million in damage.

Steiner Ranch residents returned to their homes today and were met by volunteers delivering food and supplies.

"We decided jointly to let people in early so they could get back to their normal lives.  So people are going to have to work with firefighters in their back yards," said Lake Travis Fire Chief Jim Linardos. "We're still working on containing this fire."

The Steiner Ranch fire is now only 45% contained, and not under control—60 firefighters are still actively working in the subdivision, and 24 homes were lost, though the heroic efforts of firefighters saved over 300 homes. Investigators believe the fire started by wind causing high voltage power lines to rub against each other, sending sparks into tinder dry grass.

"This is not a grass fire. The trees are burning, the brush is burning and everything else is burning," Lindaros said. "They take a long time to consume and a long time to put out. We're going to have smoke in the area for the next three to five days." 

Tuesday afternoon Austin's Fire Department released this video of the destruction:

Fires continue to burn across Central Texas. There are several ways you can help the victims. The best is to donate cash to the American Red Cross. CultureMap's Shelley Seale detailed other ways you can help.

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September 6, 11am

Fires in Bastrop County continue to burn unabated.  As of noon today, fires burned over 30,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 homes; Bastrop County officials say they have not been able to contain them. "The weather is better today," says Bastrop Emergency Operations head Mike Fisher. "We hope firefighters can make a more direct attack today. Over the next 48 hours, we think we can make great progress."

Bastrop County evacuated 20 neighborhoods this weekend, and those families still cannot return home. 2,500 people registered in five county shelters, but most are staying with friends or family. Schools in Bastrop will be closed tomorrow as they are today.

While the extent of the tragedy is becoming more apparent every hour, no one has been killed in any of the fires as far as Central Texas officials know. Lives were saved by quick notification and evacuation as the fire ran into neighborhoods.

Residents of Steiner Ranch west of Austin will be allowed back into their homes—or what is left of them—at noon today. Fire destroyed 24 homes and damaged 30 more in the subdivision. The City of Austin reports firefighters saved over 300 homes. Law enforcement officials warn that only residents will be allowed to enter the subdivision and ask everyone else to avoid the area. There will be nothing to see. 

CultureMap contributor Shelley Seale tells the frightening stories of two families forced to leave.

The Leander school district closed schools today and says they will be assessing whether they can open schools tomorrow. Leander's Vandergrift High School serves as a shelter for those unable to return home.

Across the state of Texas, over 3.6 million acres have burned during this fire season as a whole, destroying over 1,000 homes.

Texas has declared the fires a disaster, which is the first step in receiving federal aid for those affected.

photo gallery on KXAN is being regularly updated.

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Wildfires continue to char much of Central Texas. Tonight KXAN-TV reports nearly 500 homes have been lost.

The largest fire burns in Bastrop where over 30,000 acres are scorched, fueled by winds from Tropical Storm Lee. Those in Steiner Ranch, where fires have burned for over 24 hours and destroyed 25 homes, are still not allowed back home.

All of Austin could see smoke on the horizon, a constant reminder that—as many celebrated the holiday—others were running for their lives and losing their most precious possessions.

Tonight the wind has relented allowing firefighters to get a handle on the flames.

There is an excellent photo gallery on KXAN here.

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September 5, 8am

Fires raged across Central Texas Sunday from Bastrop to Steiner Ranch near Mansfield Dam; from Pflugerville to Marble Falls. The wind that cooled us down this Labor Day, also brought the perfect conditions for fires to grow out of control.

Acoording to KXAN News at least 25 homes were lost to fire in Steiner Ranch and thousands were evacuated. While RR 620 is open this morning, residents are still not allowed to return to their homes. As of 11p.m., the fire was still burning.

In Bastrop and Pflugerville hundreds of homes were evacuated. In Bastrop four shelters were opened as a 14,000 acre fire continued to burn, losses to homes are expected to be significant. Over 160 animals were rescued from the Bastrop animal shelter overnight.

Every fire department in Central Texas was activated, and firefighters were rousted from holidays off. The fires have pushed the limits of Central Texas fire response.

Austinites should stay aware of what's happening around them and stay tuned to the media. Fires can flare and grow out of control in minutes due the dry, windy weather. Also, officials ask that people stay away from the affected areas unless they need to be there. The Red Cross is staffing shelters and so far have not called for help.

You can see a remarkable photo gallery on KXAN here.

Austin Photo: News_Kevin Benz_KXAN Wildfires_August 2011_burned car
Photo by Doug Shupe
Austin Photo: News_Kevin Benz_KXAN Wildfires_August 2011_burned home
Photo by Doug Shupe
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Texas fires_what can you do to help_August 2011_burned house
Photo by Russell L. Minton
Austin Photo: News_Kevin_wildfire_September 2011_bastrop map
Courtesy of Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin Benz_KXAN Wildfires_August 2011_map of fire
Austin Photo Set: News_KXAN_wildfires_August 2011_steiner ranch
Photo by Esteban Rubio
Austin Photo Set: News_KXAN_wildfires_August 2011_house
Courtesy of KXAN
Austin Photo Set: News_KXAN_wildfires_August 2011_oasis
Photo by Krista Jezek
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin Benz_KXAN Wildfires_August 2011_helicopter
Photo by Troy Hollan
Austin Photo Set: News_KXAN_wildfires_August 2011_hwy 71
Photo by John Wylie