Environmental task force examines impact of wildfires

Environmental task force examines impact of wildfires

23 October 2011

published by www.statesman.com

USA — A multiagency environmental response task force will soon issue a report assessing the environmental and ecological damage of the wildfires.

“It’s almost complete,” said Roxanne Hernandez, administrator for the county’s Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan , who expects the report to be finished by mid-November.

The task force is looking into issues of wildlife management, soil, erosion, water quality, reforestation and habitat, she said.

The early September wildfire’s initial damage to 35,000 acres is obvious — the pines at Bastrop State Park, for instance, will take 50 years to fully return — but the full scope of the damage is a wait-and-see proposition.

“Our next step will be the development of actions to address the immediate issues,” Hernandez said, including educating landowners about what trees to cut down, what to replant and so on.

“We’re sending out letters telling homeowners what they want to know and what we want them to know,” Hernandez said.

The 10-agency task force, which includes local, state and federal agencies, is also counting on Mother Nature to be kind.

“We need rain but not too much because of the erosion and sedimentation problem,” said Daniel Lewis, a forester with the Texas Forest Service. The prospects for any kind of rain are slim, however, as the drought is expected to continue into 2012.

Lewis said the replanting of drought-hardy loblolly pines will begin in 2013. Seeds are in storage and will soon be planted by private nurseries.

Some field work has already started, said John Wedig, water quality supervisor for the Lower Colorado River Authority. “We’ve taken water samples at three locations of the Colorado River and the Alum Creek watershed. So far, there is no impact from the fire,” he said.

The LCRA is also waiting on rain that will carry soot and ash into the many tributaries that feed Alum Creek. The creek joins the Colorado near Smithville.

“The most immediate impact of soot and ash is that it would dissolve oxygen that could affect fish. As far as the ash, it could contain heavy metals, mercury and arsenic that could be toxic,” Wedig said. “Plus, hydrocarbons that come from things like oil and gas that people stored in the garage. And herbicides, pesticides and household cleaners. “

Hernandez said there’s concern for the endangered Houston toad. Texas State University biologist Mike Forstner, his students, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Houston Zoo, volunteers and private landowners have worked together in the past seven years to re-establish the species. In the summer, the toads burrow in the sandy soil. The concern is when the hungry toads emerge in November.

“The shelter cover provided by trees is no longer there, and the vegetation that attracted insects for them to eat is no longer there,” Hernandez said.

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