Aug. 30, 2012 - A year after the devastating wildfires in Bastrop County, the land left charred and barren by the Labor Day weekend fire year ago is showing signs of coming back to life. Spring rains brought new growth -- including a bumper crop of weeds -- along with subtle signs that the healing of the land has begun.
Rachel Bauer, agriculture Extension agent for Bastrop County, said the major damage from the fires was to small acreage landowners and to the iconic "lost pines" for which the county is known statewide. Agriculture losses consisted of burned pastures, about 80 or 90 miles of fencing, 30-35 head of cattle, two dozen or so horses and a number of sheep and goats. She said the exact number of animals lost is hard to come by because not everybody who lost animals reported the losses.
"Most of the land that was burned was in pine forest but we had several pastures burned off and we lost some cattle and other animals," Bauer said. "People have done what they can with pasture management. The weeds came back in full force. Some producers were able to practice some weed control. Overall, the pastures have come back pretty well."
The Bastrop fire was among the most destructive in the state's history but it was only one of about 30,000 fires reported last year by the Texas Forest Service; more than four million acres of Texas burned. Agricultural losses from the fires were estimated by Texas AgriLife Extension at more than $217 million. Statewide, Texas ranchers lost 6,200 miles of fencing and valuable topsoil that ended up in the Colorado River as sediment.
Bauer said some of the hardest hit ranchers received aid from the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) early this year through the State of Texas Agricultural Relief (STAR) fund. The TDA distributed vouchers worth $1,000 each to 23 Bastrop County ranchers. The vouchers were redeemable at a local building supply store that contributes to the STAR fund.
"That did help a lot of ranchers in the county get started rebuilding," Bauer said. "You have to have fences before you can have cattle."
The fire drew national attention because of the number of homes lost in the fire - more than 400 - and because it burned through the middle of the Lost Pines forest of Texas, a belt of loblolly pines that grow on the western fringe of the tree's range. The fire destroyed more than a million of the pine trees. Ninety-six percent of Bastrop State Park, the heart of the Lost Pines, was burned.
In the aftermath of the fire, the county assembled the Lost Pines Recovery Team, of which Bauer is a member. The team, which consists of local, state and federal entities with deep knowledge of the Lost Pines eco-system, adopted recommendations for pasture recovery from the Texas Forest Service. The recommendations include: proper stocking rates, altering the season of use for grazing areas, rotating livestock between pastures to allow for plant recovery and rotating salt, mineral and feeding locations to better distribute grazing.
"We're conducting workshops to help people with planting native grasses and managing brush control," Bauer said. "We had more than 270 landowners show up at a meeting in February. People want to replant as soon as they can, but they want to do it right."
County officials have estimated it will cost $17.2 million over five years to restore native vegetation lost in the fire. The recovery plan includes corrosion control, reseeding native grasses, managing brush and planting drought-tolerant loblolly pines and native hardwoods.
Bauer said the lessons learned from the fire came at a cost.
"We found out how important a little bit of pre-planning with fencing can be," she said. "If possible, you want to leave some gaps or gates that you can open quickly if you have to let livestock out or if firefighters need to get in."
Bauer said there's a lot that can be done to prepare for a wildfire and certain precautions can help prevent them but this fire was so big and moving so quickly that the people in its path were fortunate just to get out of its way.
"We're still on the road to recovery here," she said. "It's getting better. It's just going to take some rain and some time for the pastures to rest. But it is a lot better than it was a year ago."