Sunday, March 1, 2009

news from smalltown texas

Fire rips through Bastrop County, destroying homes and businesses

Deborah Cannon /AMERICAN-STATESMANAt least 23 homes and nine businesses were destroyed and more than 650 acres were scorched as a fire probably caused by a downed power line rolled through a semirural stretch of Bastrop County on Saturday,

The blaze, which officials named the Wilderness Ridge Fire, sent billows of smoke skyward all afternoon, and it forced dozens of residents to evacuate their homes in the early afternoon.

At one point, more than 200 homes were threatened. One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported Saturday night.

Portions of Texas 71 between Bastrop and Smithville were shut down as crews from at least four firefighting airplanes, three helicopters and a host of emergency vehicles toiled to keep the fast-moving fire, fed by gusty winds and parched conditions, at bay.

County Judge Ronnie McDonald declared Bastrop a disaster zone, opening the way for state or federal help. It’s the second time in less than two weeks that the judge has declared a disaster. McDonald recently wrote Gov. Rick Perry asking for help because of record dry conditions.

The area struck by the fire is home to Bastrop’s piney woods and some of its agriculture. It is also dotted with subdivisions. Sandra Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service, which was assisting Bastrop County with the fire, said officials did not know the names of the destroyed businesses.

As night fell, officials said the fire was 40 percent contained and said they were hoping to make a stand along the Colorado River.

Officials were hoping that the fire, whipped by gusts up to 39 mph in midafternoon, would slow down as winds steadily decreased after sunset.

National Weather Service forecaster Chris Morris said he expected light winds overnight, topping out at 15 mph today.

“We’ll probably have to continue fighting the fire” today, County Commissioner Willie PiƱa said.

Officials at the Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative said the fire began at midday with a power line downed by a blown-over tree. The tree that fell across the power line was taller than 60 feet and more than a foot outside the right of way Bluebonnet co-op maintains along its power lines, said Will Holford a Bluebonnet spokesman. The co-op maintains a right of way that is 30 feet wide – 15 feet on each side extending from the center of its power lines.

At 12:02 p.m., the co-op’s control center got a call that a line had been downed in the Alum Creek area north of Texas 71 between Bastrop and Buescher state parks and that a power cable was “making popping noises,” Holford said.

By the time a co-op crew appeared on the scene a half-hour later, the fire had raged out of control, he said.

Nearby homeowners were quickly told to evacuate to Smithville or Bastrop. Shelters were set up at the First Baptist Church and the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department in Smithville, with assistance from the American Red Cross.

Those shelters were later consolidated at the Smithville Recreation Center to accommodate more people. Animal control personnel were dispatched to save pets and livestock.

At the shelter at the church, where about 20 people were taking small comfort in a dinner of pizza and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, evacuee Terry Carmack worried about her four dogs, which she had left chained up when she went to a tae kwon do tournament Saturday morning. Carmack also owns a horse and a donkey.

“We just don’t know how they’re doing,” she said.

Elizabeth Rienker, who lives near Alum Creek, was driving back to her home about 12:30 p.m. when she smelled smoke in the air.

She took a few minutes to grab as much memorabilia as she could from her home, including old photos and a wedding bowl that had been given to her grandmother.

She said she was about to grab some letters her daughters wrote her when they were children when she heard a heard a loud pop, which she thought was probably a pine tree exploding.

“Better go,” she said she thought to herself.

“It must be because of the horrible factors of high winds and the drought we’ve been experiencing,” she said from a general store near Texas 71, where she and other evacuees took refuge. “There have been so many firefighters out there, but the smoke continues.

“It’s beautiful property out there, with all those pines,” she said. “It’s land I’ve never taken for granted.”

By Laura Heinauer , Asher Price

bastrop wild fire

i'll be looking for ways to help these folks out today. if you are from bastrop and know who is collecting goods for the folks involved, please please please drop me a line. i may stop by the fire department to see if i can learn more.

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