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Travis County hoping for federal grant funds to clean up after wildfires

Monday, October 24, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County officials say that if the county’s costs for the Labor Day weekend wildfire are at least $3 million, it would qualify for grant money to cover some of the cost of cleaning up after the disaster. However, Emergency Management Coordinator Pete Baldwin says he’s not certain that the county’s costs will meet the threshold to trigger the federal assistance.


“Steiner Ranch, Spicewood, and Pflugerville were all declared eligible (for) a fire mitigation assistance grant,” Baldwin told In Fact Daily. He added that “those expenses associated with those fires cannot be used” when calculating the damage figures for the debris grant. The county would be eligible for other federal grants.”


That news came as the Travis County Commissioners Court continued to re-examine the way the county responds to major disasters. Though the court took no further action in that direction on Tuesday, further changes seem inevitable. Though most of the adjustments continue to fly through with unanimous approval, the question of whether the county should spring for a new Public Information Officer position began to cause some debate.


“What I get from PIOs is they can spin the information and this is one issue where I don’t think any spinning needs to be done,” said Commissioner Margaret Gomez.


Gomez also cited the expense associated with that new hire. “I think if we keep adding people to our government, we’re going to make it keep growing and from what I’ve heard from taxpayers this year is that they’re not really interested in paying more taxes.”


Damage figures began to appear as Baldwin engaged in a discussion with court members over potential reimbursements for county expenditures, specifically debris removal. He told the court that, though the federal government offered grants to help mitigate the cost of debris removal in the wake of a disaster the county wouldn’t be eligible for those funds.


Baldwin then estimated that the amount of damage produced by various smaller fire incidents that happened around the county at the same time as the major fires at Steiner Ranch, Spicewood, and Pflugerville totaled not more than $600,000. County Judge Sam Biscoe wondered if the county would reach the threshold for federal debris assistance.


“Not unless we have another fire…and I personally don’t advocate that route,” replied Baldwin.


As the court went through the cost discussion, Gomez referenced U.S. Representative Michael McCaul’s (R-TX) recent effort to address the lack of federal airborne fire fighting assistance over that weekend. Baldwin told Gomez that, without the US planes, the county was forced to use all three of its Star Flight helicopters.


“Since we didn’t have any of those assets available to us we used what we had,” said Baldwin. “Normally what we would do with Star Flight would be the first in, and then once we got the larger Federal or State aircraft coming in, Star Flight would pull off.”


Star Flight program manager Casey Ping estimated that the costs for using the helicopters for fire prevention during the week of the event would be roughly $70,000. There were also associated crew expenses incurred when Star Flight had to call in an extra team.


Gómez’ concerns about the potential Public Information Officer prompted a response from Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber. She suggested that the “sheer volume” of information that the county needs to get to the public could justify the position.


Huber and Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt had pushed for such an addition before the fires.

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