Jeff Osborne Senior
Jun 2, 2023
Area leaders target strategies for obtaining wildfire defense funds
After Coryell County - along with every other Texas applicant - was shut out from funding from the U.S. Forest Service for a Community Wildfire Defense Grant - representatives of the Texas A&M Forest Service, local fire departments, county leaders, Fort Cavazos personnel and Natural Resources Solutions employees gathered on May 24 at the County Annex to discuss strategies for a successful future application for funds.
For 2023, applicants along the east and west coasts, particularly in Washington, California, and North Carolina, received the U.S. Forest Service grants. Based on past wildfire impacts and future concerns, Coryell County is likely to again seek this grant. Alex Bregenzer, mitigation prevention department program coordinator with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said there will be four more opportunities for communities to apply for this specific grant.
"From the county's standpoint, we made a decision to be better informed if we're competing to apply for a grant in the future," said Coryell County Judge Roger Miller. "Last year - as much as at any point in my life - highlighted the impact of wildfires in our area. There is a tremendous economic impact."
Lillian Reed with NRS said the county's Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP) was approved by the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which submitted the plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on May 3. One component of that plan addresses wildfire concerns. The Resilient Community Program (RCP) through the Texas General Land Office also ties into the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).
"The goal is to get the county, firefighters, Fort Cavazos and all local entities to work together to implement that plan," Reed said.
Steve Manning with NRS has helped the county with development of the HMP and also in applying for the wildfire protection grant.
"The county has taken an aggressive stance to get planning done, and those three (the HMP, RCP and CWPP) all support each other," he said. "The RCP is about land use, subdivision regulations and building use codes. The HMP opens the door for additional FEMA funds. And the CWPP, which was not awarded (to Coryell County) opens the door for additional U.S. Forest Service funds."
Using data from 2005-2015, Reed noted that there were 28,434 acres burned at Fort Cavazos (formerly known as Fort Hood) and 27,449 acres burned elsewhere in the county.
She noted that the military installation makes up about 22% of county land but accounts for more than 50% of the local acres burned.
"I don't want (the statistics) to be misread," said Judge Miller, who himself is a U.S. Army veteran with 23 years of service and is familiar with artillery operations. "Some military installations have a policy to let certain areas burn which is different from how things might be handled elsewhere. Conditions are different outside the installations."
Greta Buccellato, deputy to the Fort Cavazos garrison commander, and Fort Cavazos firefighters were among those attending the meeting. She said the post has made significant efforts to reduce fire fuel loads and asked if those efforts were taken into consideration when the county applied for the grant. She added that including that information might help with future applications.
"Our purpose is to train soldiers to win wars, and you have to fire weapons, and that causes fires," she said. "First and foremost, we concentrate on reducing (fire) fuels, placing firebreaks and then on response capability and education."
One of the Fort Cavazos firefighters said when the 36th Engineers return, the plan is to implement even more fire prevention efforts on post.
"We also have strike teams that hit the fires fast and hard so they won't get away from us," he said. He added that he checks weather conditions daily to monitor fire dangers and the post has different levels based on those conditions that can limit what is done during training exercises.
One area in which Coryell County was hampered in its application was in the low-income criteria, but different data sets were used by different applicants. The plan is to use U.S. Census data rather than county figures in hopes that the metrics used in that area will be fairer.
Texas A&M Forest Service representatives said a lack of specific details for how fire prevention plans would be implemented and continued was also an area that was cited on the county's application, along with details on how the projects will be sustained and cost figures in relation to accomplishments.
Reducing fire fuel loads "is one of the big things to look at," Manning said, adding he will need to talk to area fire departments about strategies to reduce those."
Judge Miller asked where Coryell County ranks as a priority for the state in receiving wildfire defense grant funds.
"Y'all want this, so that's a high priority for us," Bregenzer said. "The Crittenberg Complex Fire (of 2022) was a large fire in the county. We are trying to hit the counties that have (higher risks) and are interested." He added that specific information has to be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service to be competitive for the wildfire defense grants. The next round of applications could be opened as early as this month or in July.
"The big deal is what do we do in our county to prevent wildfires," said Copperas Cove Fire Chief Gary Young. "We have to educate people on how to protect their property and prevent it from becoming part of the problem." He referred to the FEMA community wildfire protection plan as an example "of what we can do to prevent problems."
Young credited the efforts at Fort Cavazos as being a significant way to help protect the county from fires.
Judge Miller said input from all the county's fire departments is crucial in determining the county's next steps in future applications for wildfire defense grants.
"From the county's standpoint, if there's not a commitment and dedication from the fire departments, there's not a reason for us to push this through," he said. He added that meetings between county leaders and fire department members will be vital to get information to ensure the county turns in the best grant application that it can.