Recovery continues after Bastrop County wildfires

Recovery continues after Bastrop County wildfires

31 October 2011

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USA — First came the men with the pickup trucks and the fliers, soliciting homeowners who were sifting through the rubble.

On their heels came the scrappers, hunting for salvage metal. Then came the demolition crews, the tree crews, the dump trucks piled with concrete and brick, filling the blackened forest with the sounds of diesel engines and chain saws.

The spooky, post-wildfire quiet of the Lost Pines has been replaced with the buzz of a nascent recovery, as drifts of rubble and charred vehicles are scraped off lots to make way for new homes, or perhaps “for sale” signs.

Businesses are flocking to Bastrop County to get a piece of the action, creating expectations for a boost during a sluggish economy — and some tension between homegrown businesses and the out-of-towners who are plopping temporary trailer-offices onto parking lots all over the community.

“There is stuff going on everywhere. Every grocery store is like the day before Christmas — the parking lots are full,” said Susan Wendel , president and CEO of the Bastrop Chamber of Commerce. “There are going to be lots of opportunities for people to work here.”

The local hotels are full of fire victims and tree-cutting crews and contractors. Builders said they’re preparing drawings and site plans for residents who want to rebuild. In turn, they’re calling their subcontractors to line up crews of concrete finishers and framers and drywall installers for what they said could be a year or more of new construction jobs.

The big question remains: How many people will rebuild, and how many will leave their charred lots to move elsewhere?

Vince Kaiser of Prestige Custom Homes in Smithville said he has at least 18 new homes under contract already and figures he’ll double his usual pace of one new home a month.

“It’s going to be a boom for the next year; I’m booking things for nine months out,” said Kaiser, adding that about half of his customers are rebuilding in the burn zone and the rest are buying land elsewhere in Bastrop County. “We’re all working seven days a week now. There’s going to be a lot of jobs created. It’s a good thing from a bad situation.”

Builder D.R. Horton said it has sold eight already-finished homes to Bastrop fire victims, most of them in the Hunters Crossing development outside of the burn zone — and the company has started construction on 20 more new homes to meet the extra demand.

Another builder, Stan Voelker, said he’s talked to eight Bastrop County couples about building new homes. Three of them want to stay in the county, he said, “three are on the fence,” and two plan to build elsewhere.

“The reason they bought the lot is not there anymore,” he said. “The beautiful pines are gone.”

The Labor Day weekend fires destroyed 1,600 homes in Bastrop County and killed two people. As of Thursday, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative had received 669 requests to reconnect electricity in the burn zone (the co-op doesn’t ask whether customers are planning to rebuild).

The recovery will be financed largely by insurance checks, charitable donations and aid from the federal government — according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency , 3,000 Bastrop County residents had applied for assistance as of Friday and had been approved for $7.3 million.

At McCoy’s Building Supply on Texas 71, workers were preparing the outdoor warehouses for big shipments of lumber and materials in anticipation of a lot more business. Store Manager Michael Chambless said the company has hired three or four new people and plans to hire more.

“It’s a huge boost to the economy. It’s complete devastation, but it’s going to turn this place around,” Assistant Manager Taylor Jameson said.

The new jobs will be welcome in Bastrop County, where 42 percent of the population commutes to Austin for work and the unemployment rate has hovered around 8 percent.

Along with the school district and the county, the biggest employers are the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort, the federal prison, Walmart, H-E-B and the University of Texas’ cancer research center and science park.

Already, the fires have spawned a new industry in Bastrop.

Mike Widner is a builder in Bastrop, but like a lot of others in the area with access to heavy equipment, he’s dived into the demolition business, bringing with him laborers who are eager for the extra work. On a recent weekday, he watched a crew break up a slab in the hard-hit Circle D subdivision — one of a half-dozen lot cleanups he had done since the fires broke out.

He said he’s hired a couple of extra hands to help with the work, which takes three to four days per lot and had kept his crews busy six days a week, 12 hours a day for weeks immediately after the fires.

“There’s guys out here who are bricklayers or masonry guys, and they just jumped in” to demolition work, Widner said.

Luke Anderson, an Elgin subcontractor who normally prepares lots for construction, said he’s hired five or six workers and nailed down enough home site cleanup jobs to keep them busy for the next two months. Things were slow before the fires, he said, “and now I’m as busy as I can be. Couldn’t ask for better timing.”

A few miles away, Steve Cox was behind the controls of a tractor. Cox was laid off in August from his desk job at Applied Materials, which makes computer chip manufacturing equipment. As his friend Tommy Crain broke up a concrete slab with a hydraulic hammer, two workers tossed chunks of broken slab into the tractor’s metal bucket, then Cox hauled the pieces to the edge of the street — another mound of roadside rubble that was once someone’s home. Cox said he jumped at the opportunity when Crain, who has a construction company in Houston, called him and suggested they hand out fliers in Bastrop advertising site cleanup work.

“It came at a good time for me,” said Cox, who lives about 20 miles northeast of Bastrop in Lincoln. “It’s not what I usually do; I usually work purchasing behind a desk but I’m trying to earn some extra money where I can.”

In the burn zone, blackened trees and utility poles bristle with signs for debris removal, new homes built fast, dirt work, demolition. Convenience store windows are papered with fliers for contractors and personal injury lawyers. More than 1,200 companies have put their names on a list of vendors and contractors that the Bastrop County Board of Realtors began compiling for residents after the fires — including more than 150 offering site cleanup services.

“It’s not a bad thing that these people came; it’s just the nature of their business,” said Wendel, the Chamber of Commerce president.

But the sudden crush of vendors, contractors and builders setting up shop in Bastrop has been greeted with instinctive wariness by many in this tight-knit community.

“They’re coming from everywhere,” said Erika McDonald, manager of the Tahitian Village Property Owners Association. “It’s crazy right now, but I guess that’s just what happens in a disaster.”

McDonald, who lost her home to the fires, said representatives from out-of-town vendors and companies have flocked to their association meetings, trying to make contact with fire victims. Her father-in-law, Randy McDonald, a local real estate agent and president of the association’s architectural control committee, said some of those same businesses have tried to cozy up to him for referrals.

“Now people are calling me who I don’t even know,” he said. They want to go to lunch. McDonald tells them he’s too busy.

County leaders have publicly encouraged people to choose local businesses when possible. But many locals acknowledge that there aren’t enough local companies to meet the demand for some services, including site cleanup and tree removal.

“They all wanted to stay local, but local can’t handle all that’s there,” said Duane Bleeker, superintendent of Granbury Excavating, which sent crews 180 miles south from Granbury to do site cleanup in Bastrop County. “We were kind of slow around here so we went down there trying to help out.”

As one of Granbury’s crews pounded a fire-blackened slab to rubble on Cardinal Drive, Jose Ruiz, 53, waited and watched. He’s a construction worker but said he hasn’t had steady work in four months. So he and his son — also named Jose — hauled twisted strands of rebar to their pickup as the demolition crew removed the metal from the concrete.

The son said they’d been doing this for a few days, earning $100 to $150 a day selling the rebar as scrap.

The father said that would help them put food on the table, and he hopes when new houses start emerging from the ashes, he and his son will be back — with their tool belts.

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