Less than a year after a wildfire burned 96 percent of Bastrop State Park’s 6,613 acres, the Central Texas park is showing signs of rebirth. Camping areas and hiking trails have recently reopened and grass and trees are growing from the once-charred soil.
The devastating September fire hit the park as it was suffering through the most severe drought in recorded Texas history.
“It blew everybody away,” said Roger Dolle, the park’s site manager. “Nobody could believe how this fire reacted and how fast it burned and how hot it burned. After years and years of drought and prime fuels, it was the perfect storm.”
Although pine trees may never grow back as densely in some areas — the fire heavily damaged 34 percent of the park — none of the park’s buildings were burned. The park, which opened in December for the first time after the fire, closed again after heavy January rains. This month, after some improvement projects unrelated to the fire and park rehabilitation were completed, cabins and most hiking trails and camping areas reopened to the public.
Justice Jones, a fire prevention coordinator at the Texas Forest Service, said Bastrop officials had done all they could to educate people about protecting their homes ahead of the blaze, but that the September fire could not be prevented. The state was already experiencing extreme heat and little rainfall, and the fire began when trees fell on power lines.
“We knew it was going to be a bad year,” Jones said. “We knew that area was extremely high risk.”
Bastrop’s power companies wanted to clear trees around the area’s power lines before re-energizing them. Bastrop State Park officials, not wanting to chop down any of the few live trees they still had, began a project to route their primary electric service underground. The new placement would also avoid a repeat of how the massive wildfire started.
Since the fire in the park, an isolated region of drought-resistant loblolly pines, park officials have also chopped down leaning or burned trees that could have fallen on roads or campsites, battled erosion and rerouted hiking trails. The Texas Department of Transportation has been fixing rain-damaged roads. Native oak and invasive yaupon trees have sprouted.
Park officials were prepared for erosion problems after the fire burned grass and small plants holding the soil in place and heavy rains washed away roads and soil. To address the problem, parts of the park were sprayed with a mustard yellow-colored mixture of water, a glue-like solution, fine wood fiber mulch and grass seeds through a process called hydromulching. The hydromulch has already withstood heavy rain, and Dolle is hopeful that the rehabilitation will hold up against further erosion.
Dolle also hopes to start replanting pine trees this winter and to continue over the next few years.
“We’re hesitant to go out and start planting, because we don’t know what Mother Nature is going to throw at us,” Dolle said. “But we’ve got to do something.”
Oaks have started sprouting, but because park officials do not want the park to turn into an oak and yaupon thicket that competes with pines for resources, park officials plan to cull the oak and yaupon manually or with chemicals or controlled burning.
The region’s endangered Houston toad has not regenerated so quickly. The toads can burrow up to a foot underground, but the fire burned as deep as 18 inches. Toads have been spotted since the fire, but the outlook for them looks “pretty grim,” Dolle said.
Texas parks were already facing a $4.6 million budget shortfall for 2012 when the fire hit. About half of Texas state parks’ revenue comes from visitor fees, but the drought has discouraged camping across the state. Erosion control alone has already cost the park $1.1 million, and it is not finished. Most of the park’s rehabilitation has been paid for by donations.
“Getting folks to come out and visit state parks is the best thing that we can ask for,” said Todd McClanahan, a regional director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.