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Panel selected to review cause of wildfire in Bastrop

A helicopter drops water on the wildfire in Bastrop State Park last week.
Michael Minasi
A helicopter drops water on the wildfire in Bastrop State Park last week.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has selected a panel of experts to review the circumstances and cause of the wildfire that broke out last week in Bastrop State Park.

Officials say the fire, which began last Tuesday, Jan. 18, was likely caused by a prescribed burn in the park. The fire burned 812 acres, drawing in emergency workers from around the state and requiring some 250 Bastrop families to evacuate. Residents were allowed to return home Thursday last week. The fire has been fully contained since Monday.

The Texas A&M Forest Service, which was among the groups monitoring and responding to the fire, and the TPWD have requested a panel of experts look into the fire's cause.

The panel consists of five members from state forestry agencies in the South who have knowledge of prescribed burns and wildland fire response, according to a press release from the TAMFS and TPWD.

Officials began a prescribed burn last Tuesday, which is when fire is set to a landscape to meet certain objectives like improving wildlife habitats or reducing fuel loads. It was thought that embers likely went outside of the prescribed burn's boundaries, causing the wildfire.

Part of the panel's job is to review the decision-making process around this particular prescribed fire, evaluate staff and equipment, and develop recommendations for the TPWD.

“We fully support this independent review and will continue working every day to earn the public’s trust for the continued safe and effective use of prescribed fire,” TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith said in a statement. “Prescribed burns are a carefully calculated risk but are essential in managing many of our habitats, landscapes and private and public lands across Texas, including the iconic Lost Pines Forest at Bastrop."

Prescribed burns in Bastrop and Buescher State Parks have temporarily been suspended until the panel finishes their work and their recommendations have been considered. Wes Moorehead, fire chief for the Texas A&M Forest Service, said the panel will be in Texas starting Friday, and it typically takes three or four days to conduct a review.

"I expect Texas Parks and Wildlife will probably see a preliminary report from this team late next week," Moorehead said. "And then after that, it's usually another two or three weeks before the final report is issued back to the requesting agency."

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Allyson Ortegon is a former Williamson County reporter for KUT.
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