After devastating fire, Texans vow to rebuild park and community

Reuters News

10/14/2011 12:18:46 AM - Reuters News

By Corrie MacLaggan

BASTROP, Texas (Reuters) - Bastrop calls itself the Heart of the Lost Pines, but now the Texas state park is the place where the pines were lost.

More than a month after the most destructive wildfire in Texas history burned 34,000 acres, destroyed 1,600 homes and killed two people, Bastrop State Park is filled with the sound of stump grinders and the sight of charred trees.

The executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said on Thursday that the state was committed to repairing a place where families have long come to walk among the stately pine trees.

"The sense of place that has always been here for generations will be restored," Carter Smith, the executive director, said at a press conference at the still-closed park east of Austin.

"We will rise again; this park will rise again," said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service.

It will be an enormous task. Some 1.5 million trees are expected to be lost in the park and elsewhere in Bastrop County, where officials are working to clear brush and residents are making tough decisions about whether to rebuild.

New Mexico and Arizona have had significant wildfire activity, but no state has seen more acres burn this year than Texas, according to the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center.

Since wildfire season began last November, more than 3.8 million acres have burned in the Lone Star State, the Texas Forest Service said. Some 14,000 people have come to help fight Texas wildfires this year, Boggus said.

A record-breaking drought, the La Nina weather pattern and abundant fuel such as grass created "kind of a perfect storm for this year," Tom Spencer, head of the predictive services department at the Forest Service, told Reuters.

Fire season is not over. Though there have been some recent rains, and some counties have started lifting burn bans, the Texas Forest Service warned on Thursday that wildfires remained a potential threat.

"Even with the rains, folks, we're not out of this," Boggus said. "Texas is not out of this by a long shot."

HOPES FOR DECEMBER REOPENING

The Labor Day weekend fire reached 95 percent of Bastrop State Park, though firefighters managed to save its 1930s-era sandstone cabins. Park officials, hoping to reopen by December 1, are working to remove hazardous trees, clean up hiking trails and control erosion.

On Thursday, park superintendent Todd McClanahan led a media tour to an area where fire had raced up the hillside, throwing embers that destroyed the roof of a scenic overlook.

Standing near trees that were either completely blackened or had brown tops, he said they would have to come down, and that visitors would no longer be greeted by a tunnel of pines.

That's a blow to a park that advertises to potential visitors that they can "stay in one of the beautiful rustic cabins or pitch a tent on a soft floor of pine needles, under the shade of the lofty trees overhead."

The park is special to area residents such as David Braley, 47, whose his son Trace built a cedar canopy over a picnic table area for his Eagle Scout project two years ago.

"A lot of boys spent a lot of hours on that," Braley told Reuters. "We made it to last."

Braley said he didn't know whether the canopy survived. McClanahan said that it did.

Texas officials said state parks have been hurt financially by the fact that fewer visitors came during what turned out to be the hottest Texas summer on record.

State officials announced an $850,000 donation from the Dallas-based Meadows Foundation to agencies working on recovery efforts. On October 17, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and Willie Nelson are among those due to play at a benefit concert in Austin for Central Texas wildfire relief.

Braley, a welder who is president of the property owners association in his neighborhood, said about 250 of 1,400 homes in his community were lost. Embers destroyed some of his landscaping, but his house didn't burn.

He said some of his neighbors had decided to move away but most were planning to rebuild.

"The Texas spirit is still there," he said. "Even though we've lost our natural asset, the towering pine trees, people still want to come back."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)