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Texas Forest Service

A dollar a tree

Replacing the trees lost in the Bastrop fires last summer is going to cost some money, but there’s now a foundation working on raising that money.

Flanked by containers bristling with pine tree seedlings, state and local officials on Tuesday announced a campaign to pay for an ambitious five-year plan to restore the Lost Pines after last year’s fires.

The Arbor Day Foundation has agreed to lead the fundraising effort and needs to raise about $4 million — or one dollar for every pine tree to be planted over the next five years.

The foundation said it has already received more than $600,000 in commitments from companies such as FedEx, Mary Kay and Nokia.

[…]

Nearly a year ago, the Labor Day fires burned more than 32,000 acres in Bastrop County and destroyed more than 1,700 homes and other structures, making it the most destructive fire in Texas history.

A hastily formed group of county, state and federal officials, dubbed the Lost Pines Recovery Team, immediately began working on a plan to restore the burned forest, but they hadn’t made much of a dent in raising the $17 million they had determined was needed for tree planting, erosion control, reseeding native grasses and clearing dead brush and other fuels.

The public-private partnership announced Tuesday puts the Arbor Day Foundation in charge of raising money, while the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas A&M Forest Service will handle planning, volunteers, tree selection and planting. Texas A&M University has pledged to send students to help plant this winter, Chancellor John Sharp said.

Go here to learn more about the Arbor Day Foundation, and go here to make a donation or volunteer your time to this effort. I wish them the best of luck with this project. The Arbor Day Foundation blog has more.

Assessing the risk of wildfires

While one hopes that it won’t be a problem this year, the Harris County Fire Marshall has come up with a plan to protect vulnerable areas from wildfires.

Four months ago, Harris County became the most populated county in the state to finalize a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. It identified areas facing the greatest wildfire risk, including Katy, Waller, Cypress Fairbanks, Spring and The Woodlands.

Each community is threatened, in part, because they rank “high” for intermixing homes and commercial structures with forests and other wildland vegetation that can become fuel for fires.

“More and more, we have bedroom communities moving into the woods and brush for the scenic beauty. They often abut large areas of woods,” said Brad Smith, Texas Forest Service spokesman.

This urbanization of areas that were historically farm, ranch or woodlands is putting increasing numbers of homeowners at risk, the protection plan warned.

[…]

A key factor in fighting any fire is access to water. But the protection plan noted that a pressing problem for developments in once-rural areas can be limited water supplies.

“Most water lines into unincorporated housing areas in the county have insufficient capacity to effectively pressure water hydrants for fire suppression,” the report said, noting it would also be cost prohibitive to upgrade those lines and hydrants.

The report recommends mapping all potential water sources – from stock ponds to creeks – as well as listing GPS coordinates for all hydrants that can supply water that could be trucked to a fire scene.

Here’s the Fire Marshall’s Community Wildfire Protection page, here’s the Executive Summary of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), and here’s the full plan, which is on the CWPP page. Not surprisingly, the areas most at risk are in the farthest north and northwest parts of the county. The Fire Marshall used the Texas Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk Assessment tool, which you can use as well if you want to know what your own personal risk is here. As I am firmly entrenched in the urban core mine is fairly low, but given the concerns last year about Memorial Park going up in flames, I’m not going to get too cocky about that. Take a look and see how you fare.

More than five million trees lost in the cities

More depressing numbers from the drought.

Aerial view of Memorial Park

It was a sight more common than usual this past summer: a tree too thirsty to live became another casualty to the drought. City workers would either remove the tree, or, if they were too late, it would fall, possibly on power lines, cars or a house.

On Wednesday, Texas Forest Service researchers said the current drought claimed the lives of about 5.6 million trees in cities, or roughly 10 percent of the state’s urban forests, in the agency’s first attempt at counting urban tree loss.

Those trees will cost at least $560 million to remove and provided about $280 million annually in environmental and economic benefits, a study released Wednesday said.

[…]

The death toll is likely to continue to tick upward as already-dead trees become more obvious when they don’t grow leaves in the spring and more trees die from diseases, said the study’s leader, Pete Smith.

“The damage is widespread, but it varies widely from really heavy amounts of loss to not really heavy amounts of loss,” Smith said.

The state’s urban areas, including large metropolitan areas like Houston or Austin, as well as smaller cities like Killeen, have a total of about 60 million trees, Smith said. One of the most dramatic changes came in Houston’s Memorial Park, where thousands of pine trees were lost.

That picture tells the story. Estimates for the number of trees lost in the state range up to 500 million. We’re going to feel the effect of this drought long after it ends.

Half a billion trees

Damn.

The current Texas drought has killed as many as 500 million trees 10 percent of the state’s forest cover and the end is not in sight, according to the Texas Forest Service. Some of the hardest-hit areas are in Central Texas.

The numbers are preliminary, the first results from an unprecedented statewide survey of tree mortality across 63 million acres of forest land this year.

They don’t include trees lost to drought-induced wildfire — an estimated 1.5 million trees burned in the Bastrop Labor Day fires alone — or trees that have succumbed to heat and thirst in urban areas.

Though the estimated range of dead trees varies widely — from a low of 100 million to a high of 500 million — the visible evidence of the die-off is still “very shocking,” said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service. “It’s a significant change in the landscape.”

And the stress of the past year of record-setting heat, high winds and low rainfall will continue to take its toll on living trees, whether or not the drought continues as forecast for at least another six months, because they have been too weakened to survive.

“We recognize that the mortality will increase even if it started raining,” said Burl Carraway, head of sustainable forestry for the Forest Service.

Read the rest, if you can stand it. We really, really, really, need a lot of rain.

We had a wildfire protection plan

We just weren’t willing to pay for it.

Long before this month’s historic wildfires in Texas, the state’s forest service came up with a $20.4 million plan to stop the flames from starting or tamp them out before small blazes grew deadly and destructive.

Three years later, the plan is still only half-funded — a result of the weak economy, a strained state budget and what one former lawmaker calls a “dereliction of duty” by legislators who almost always prefer to spend money only after a crisis has unfolded.

[…]

The Forest Service concedes that even the full fire-protection system would not have completely spared Texas from last week’s catastrophic fires, which incinerated more than 1,700 homes, blackened tens of thousands of acres and killed four people.

“There’s no way we’ll ever be staffed to handle the worst-case, catastrophic events like you’ve seen recently,” said Robbie DeWitt, chief financial officer of the Forest Service.

But the plan was designed to limit exactly those types of widespread losses — and at a fraction of the price of fighting full-blown fires.

The cost of the fires this year is currently estimated to be about $250 million. Good thing we were so fiscally responsible in the budget, right?

On a tangential note, if you’re tired of reading about droughts and fires, here’s a story about the floods of 1921 in Central Texas to take your mind off of them. It was sent to me by my friend and former history professor, Char Miller. We could use some good hard rains around here, but maybe not quite that much, at least not all at once.

This is an excellent time to cut funding for fighting wildfires

That’s exactly what the Republicans did in the budget that came into effect last week.

Cash-strapped state lawmakers – led by Gov. Rick Perry’s stand against raising taxes or dipping too deeply into the state rainy day fund – cut appropriations for the Texas Forest Service even as they had to dig for more money to meet its existing expenses.

Even the supplemental spending bill they passed this year won’t be enough to cover the expense of fighting fires through Aug. 31, the end of the 2010-11 fiscal period.

The Texas Forest Service, the state’s lead agency for fighting wildfires, anticipates it will need another $61 million just to cover those costs.

More money also will be needed to cover expenses in the 2012-13 budget period that began Sept. 1, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

Ogden said he didn’t have a number on how much additional funding the agency would need in 2012-13, “but it’s going to be a lot.” He also said the state is “well-positioned to cover our financial obligations.”

The Texas Forest Service was appropriated $117.7 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal period, which ended Aug. 31. It was appropriated $83 million for 2012-13, according to the agency.

[…]

The Forest Service’s associate director of finance and administration, Robby Dewitt, when asked whether the funding cut affected agency staffing, equipment or ability to fight fires, said by e-mail, “The budget cuts for FY2012-13 have had no impact on the current wildfire response approach.”

Ogden said the only significant cut to the Forest Service budget was a grant program for volunteer fire departments. He said it’s a good program but said, “The reason we did it is because the budget was tight and we had to cut it.”

He and DeWitt said the service’s operating budget was flat.

DeWitt said the Forest Service uses a “tiered approach” in fighting wildfires, relying on volunteer and paid fire departments as “the first line of defense.” After that, the Forest Service and other state agencies assist, and then the state brings in federal resources.

Perry is of course already whining about federal resources not being fast enough to suit him. These fires are going to cost a ton to fight, and given how long the drought may last, we’re probably going to be doing a lot more paying. Just because you don’t adequately budget for something doesn’t mean the need for it goes away. As for those volunteer fire fighters who are key to dousing these blazes, this wire story from May discusses how the reduction in grant money will affect them.

Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association, said volunteer fire departments rely heavily on grant funding. He said $135 million in requests are backlogged from volunteer fire departments.

“That alone should say that the departments out there greatly need the funding,” he told Reuters.

“Stuff in the fire service is not cheap,” Barron added.

He said many volunteer fire departments already have worn-down equipment and without funding for new equipment, response times will almost certainly increase.

I sure hope they have what they need to do this job, and the ones that will surely follow.