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Wildfires continue to burn in Bastrop, while other areas assess damage

Wednesday, September 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Wildfires sweeping through Central Texas, and particularly those in the Bastrop area, have affected thousands of people, including former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley.


On Tuesday morning, Dunkerley had heard news that fire had destroyed her home in the Tahitian Village subdivision of Bastrop. But by Tuesday afternoon, she told In Fact Daily that a different report indicated that the house was still there.


“I don’t know whether I have a house or I don’t have a house,” Dunkerley said. “I don’t think we can know until we can get back in there.” But Dunkerley called herself lucky, as compared to hundreds of other Bastrop County residents who are waiting and wondering whether they will have a home to return to later in the week.


A friend of Dunkerley’s said late Tuesday evening that she had confirmed that her house was still standing.


As of Tuesday night, the main fire in Bastrop, known as the Bastrop County complex fire, had not been contained. Officials reported that the Bastrop fire had consumed 34,000 acres and destroyed about 550 homes in the area. Officials also reported two fatalities from the fires, but were withholding the identities until families were notified.


The nearby Union Chapel fire, which burned approximately 800 acres and destroyed 27 homes, was reportedly 15 percent contained.


And in Travis County, fire officials said they thought that the wildfire that forced the evacuation of the Steiner Ranch area was likely caused by uninsulated power lines. That fire burned about 125 acres in the Lake Travis-area subdivision, destroying 24 homes and damaging 30 others. Residents were allowed back into their homes Tuesday afternoon.


Officials said Tuesday night that the Pedernales Bend fire, which torched about 6,400 acres and destroyed 23 homes near Spicewood, was about 80 percent contained. Another 44 structures were damaged. Officials expect that evacuees will get back in their homes sometime today.


Other fires in the area included a small fire in Leander (believed to be caused by arson), which burned 300 acres, destroyed 11 homes and damaged eight others; a couple of small fires in Northwest Austin that burned vegetation but only destroyed a couple of storage sheds; and a large grass fire on Maha Loop Road near SH 130 and US 183 in southeastern Travis County, which caused some evacuations but did not damage any structures.


Travis County’s Commissioners’ Court used a regularly scheduled item on the county’s burn ban to discuss the many wildfires. There, Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber—who herself was forced to evacuate her home in Spicewood on Sunday night—thanked public safety officials for their efforts. She then called for a new court subcommittee to “develop an emergency communications task force for wildfires.”


“I spent the last two days working diligently with our listservs and our homeowners associations that have emails, Twitters, Facebook to get just basic information out because the resources to get the information out, in some places, didn’t seem to be as well lined up,” she said. “I think we need to be prepared better for that in the future.”


Huber highlighted the region’s reverse 911 system, which is used to warn area residents in the event of an emergency. The system can only automatically contact telephone users with landlines. The growing number of Austin-area citizens who use only cell phone service must register their numbers through the Capital Area Council of Government‘s (CAPCOG) web site ( ) to receive the warnings.


On Monday, CAPCOG posted a statement about the situation. In it, the organization said that the fire had increased demand for cell phone registration, but that officials would try to “speed up the process.”


Travis County Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Tony Callaway told the court that officials were able to determine points of origin for both the Pedernales fire and the Steiner Ranch fire though the damage assessment wasn’t yet completed.


Commissioners also heard that between 500 and 600 acres of the county’s Reimers Ranch Park had been burned.


Callaway used a familiar natural disaster metaphor to describe the weekend’s events. “With the humidity level dropping as low as it has been, the drought that we’re currently in—which is in the exceptional drought category in Texas—and the higher winds that we’ve been having…it’s posed, basically, a perfect storm,” he said.

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