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Central Texas Forest Struggles to Recover from Fires

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Greg Flakus

Rain has come to parts of central Texas devastated last year by a record drought and a series of wildfires.  One of the worst-hit areas was around Bastrop, Texas near the state capital, Austin.  Fires there destroyed more than 1,600 homes and thousands of trees.  

The clean up continues in the forested areas near Bastrop, where fire debris is still in abundance.

The raging fires left little evidence that there had once been homes nestled among the pines, cedars and oaks.

People escaped from this area next to state Highway 21, with only the clothes on their backs, leaving even some vehicles behind.

This woman's house survived, but she mourns the loss of so many trees. “I cried the first day I came out here because this to me is one of the prettiest drives through Bastrop.  So to come up [Highway] 21 and see it is just heart-wrenching, all the trees they are going to take away," said a fire victim named Laura.

Daniel Lewis with the Texas Forest Service is one of the people determining which trees might survive and which need to be cut down and removed.  “I think the cedars are dead and most of the pine trees.  There is one right there that is probably going to survive, but it has been pretty severely scorched," he said.

Lewis says a tree needs only a little green to recover. “We have been using a figure of 25 percent.  If they have 25 percent of the green canopy there, then it is probably going to do fine, probably going to survive," he said.

Last year's fires came at a time of record drought.  Lewis says what they need more than anything else is rain. “Nicely spaced, periodic rain is what we need," said Lewis.

Although there have been some good showers recently, weather experts say the coming spring and summer will likely be dry.

Damaged trees also face other threats, like the fungus that Lewis says took hold after this oak tree was weakened by drought.

“This tree was most likely killed by drought and then the fire came along and burned it as well," said Lewis.

In the bark of this dead tree, Lewis finds evidence of an even more worrisome threat, wood-boring beetles that infest the tree from inside. "This could be the predicament for trees that are marginal that have some green foliage, but not enough to sustain themselves," he said.

He says damaged trees infested by the insects will not survive.

But when it finally does rain, Lewis sees another problem.

With no plant roots to hold the soil, a heavy rain could do more damage. “The fire has burned all the organic material out so we will start to see erosion and sedimentation in the streams and drainages," he said.

Some people who lost homes here and received insurance settlements are already rebuilding.

But if this year's drought is anything like last year's, the sickened and scorched trees near Bastrop could burn again, further damaging a forest that many people consider a central Texas treasure.

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