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Aransas National Wildlife Refuge sets fires to promote nature

AUSTWELL – Sometimes fire is just what the doctor ordered.

It has restorative properties, at least for the coastal prairie, a habitat as endangered as the whooping cranes and the attwater prairie chickens who make it their home.

Biologists say the prairie once spread from Corpus Christi to Lafayette, La. but today, less than one-tenth of a percent remains because it was developed for farming, cattle grazing and homes.

As the assistant fire management officer for four national wildlife refuges in Texas, it is Scott Affeldt’s job to change that.

He’s prescribed fire at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and is playing catch up administering it there because parts of the refuge have been underwater for nearly a year.

“We’ve had over 70 inches to date since Sept. 1 of last year,” he said while driving his pickup truck on a portion of the refuge known as the “Tatton Unit.”

Wednesday, it had dried out enough for him to oversee the burning of about 900 acres on Tatton.

“If we can burn up the woody species’ canopy, it will allow for more sunlight and moisture to get to the grasses so they can eventually out compete,” Affeldt said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last burned this part of the refuge three years ago. Affeldt said it will take at least 10 years to see the landscape return to a prairie.

“If you don’t do it multiple times, you’re actually just putting Miracle-Gro out there,” he said.

But it is not as simple as lighting a match.

Fish and Wildlife Service notified adjacent property owners and worked with the National Weather Service to hypothesize what path smoke from a fire would likely take.

Wednesday, the wind was blowing between 5-8 mph south and they hypothesized that the smoke would go up 4,000 feet in the air once the fire got going.

Knowing that, at about 9:30 a.m., Fish and Wildlife Service staff set the fire by using drip torches and walking north of SH 35 for a little over a mile.

This was what they called the “back fire” and what had the most potential to affect the refuge’s neighbors. That’s because it doesn’t generate enough heat to pull the smoke up.

Affeldt warned his staff they may have to put the fire out if the smoke got too thick for the hundreds, possibly thousands, of cars traversing the highway to do so safely.

But by about 11 a.m., that fear wasn’t realized, so staff turned east with their drip torches to set what they called the “flanking fire” and at about 2 p.m. they set the “head fire,” which moved with the wind and created the column of smoke they’d been predicting.

Junior Munoz was one of the 14 staff members literally in the hot seat on Wednesday.

His job was to look for and put out any flames that made it over tilled land they called the “fire break.”

He drove a UTV carrying between 50-100 gallons of water, and, like his coworkers, wore a yellow, flame retardant button-down shirt that grew sootier as the day wore on.

“Sometimes, it’s so bad you can’t stand the heat,” Munoz said while pointing to four water bottles in his pack.

Munoz normally performs maintenance at the refuge.

Laura Bonneau, the refuge’s visitors services manager, said sometimes, staff take on other duties, but fire management requires them to be able to walk three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds. They must also maintain their physical fitness by devoting one hour a work day to it whether that’s running or biking.

Part of Bonneau’s job Wednesday was assuring the public that yes, FWS knew what it was doing, and no, it was not hurting animals.

In some cases, FWS was setting out a buffet for the animals in its charge.

Birds of prey looked for mice fleeing the fire while swallows literally swallowed up bugs doing the same.

Melissa Baccus, who is an intern at the refuge and was watching the prescribed fire, summed it up this way: “Animals are smarter than people give them credit for.”

Updated: Temperatures have reached 100 degrees in Victoria 4 times this summer; more brutally hot days are expected

Heat advisories are expected across the Crossroads throughout the week, after an advisory was issued Wednesday for a sizzling chunk of South Texas, including Victoria, Goliad, Calhoun and Refugio counties, said Tawnya Evans, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Heat advisories are issued when heat indexes of 110 degrees or higher are expected over an area for at least two hours. Prolonged sun exposure combined with physical activity can cause heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

The forecast for Victoria shows temperature highs between 99-101 degrees through Tuesday, and heat indices as high as 112 degrees.

Temperatures have hit 100 degrees in Victoria on four days this summer, according to records from the National Weather Service, which show that the Victoria Regional Airport temperature- gauge reported 100 degrees or higher on July 13, July 30 and August 1-2.

Evans said this summer has been about one degree hotter than usual.

“We have had this high pressure that has been persistent across our area, though we did have that cold front a few weeks ago,” she said. “But it is possible Victoria will get to a hundred (degrees again) several times before the end of the summer.”

During heat advisories, the National Weather Service recommends people, especially those in fragile condition, reduce, eliminate or reschedule strenuous activities to the coolest times of the day, take frequent breaks in an air conditioned areas, wear lightweight, light-colored clothing and stay hydrated with non- alcoholic liquids.

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Car club hosts car wash for boy hit by stray bullet

Community members are coming together to help defray medical expenses for a 6-year-old Victoria boy who was hit by a stray bullet on the Fourth of July.

Brian Flores, president of Xpressions Car Club Texas, is hosting a car wash benefit for Joe Pena on Saturday at Advance Auto Parts, 904 E. Rio Grande St. All drivers are welcome to donate anything they can, he said.

Joe suffered a gun shot wound at about 10:30 p.m. while watching fireworks from the backyard of his grandparent’s home in the 2000 block of East Forrest Street, Victoria police said. An update on the investigation was not available Wednesday.

He was airlifted to University Hospital in San Antonio, where he underwent surgery to have a .45-caliber slug from his right forearm. His mother, Ashley Gonzales, said he is doing well, but itching to get his full-arm cast off.

While the cast will come off in about two weeks, Joe’s family still has to figure out how to pay hefty medical bills.

Contributed photo by Ashley Gonzales  

Community members are coming together to relieve some of the medical expenses for 6-year-old Joe Pena, who was hit by a stray bullet on the Fourth of July.

Flores said he immediately wanted to help when he heard about what had happened to Joe.

Flores previously organized car wash benefits for Aaron Martinez, a 17-year-old boy who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car wreck on June 2, and Freddie Castillo, a Victoria man battling cancer.

“I saw it in the paper and it kind of touched my heart,” Flores said about Joe’s story. “I sit at home and read these things in the newspaper and it just hurts me to see these families go through this stuff and if that was me, I would want someone to help.”

Ashley Gonzales, Joe’s mother, said she cried when Flores asked her if he could host a fundraiser for her son.

“I didn’t expect anyone to do something like that for him,” she said. “It was a really big shock.”

All drivers are welcome to donate anything they can at the car wash, Flores said.

“We just hope the folks come out to help this little boy and his family,” he said.

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Aero Crafters offers boot camp for taste buds at brunch, monthly dinners

The brunch menu at Aero Crafters sounds like boot camp for taste buds: smoked sausage fried in pancake batter with cinnamon maple syrup; fries with stout cheese sauce, Parmesan and truffle oil; bacon-fried rice; and blackened shrimp on a garlic polenta cake drizzled with lemon garlic butter.

The brunch is served noon to 10 p.m. every Sunday.

For those who are salivating for more, the beer garden and gastropub also hosts a four-course wine or beer dinner once a month. The Sweeter Side of the Vine Wine Dinner, which includes four courses paired with complementary wines, is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Brunch also features thirst-quenchers like the cucumber mint refresher with muddled cucumber and mint, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and Topo Chico.

Flights of mimosas and “craftails” like the pisco sour, which blends pisco brandy, lemon and lime juices, a sugar cube and egg whites “shaken not stirred,” are served only on Sundays.

And happy hour specials typically offered from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday are available all day Sunday. Well drinks are $3; beer and wine flights are $2 off and draft beers are $1 off. Aero Crafters offers 24 craft beers on tap.

“You can’t get the pisco sour anywhere else in town,” said Fe Vela, the marketing strategist for Aero Crafters. “The pisco sour with the shrimp and grits is my happy meal brunch combo.”

While customers can order off the brunch menu all day on Sundays, the menus for the alternating wine and beer dinners vary monthly.

Alex Castillo, the chef, and Mike Brewer, the assistant general manager who specializes in beer and wine procurement, dream up the special menus and prepare the gourmet meals in the Aero Crafter food truck fitted with a full kitchen. In preparation for menu planning, they taste the wines – even those they know well because they change from one vintage to the next. And they tweak the menu until the last possible minute.

“We bounce ideas off each other and settle on something a week out,” Brewer said. “One of us always has an epiphany – it’s part of the creative process.”

The hot weather motivated the selection of wines from the “sweeter side of the vine.” Gulf Breeze Winery in Victoria is providing two of the wines, a late harvest Riesling and a “Just Peachy” fruit-infused wine, for the upcoming dinner. During the interview for this article, the other two wines and the menu still were unconfirmed.

The wine and beer dinners are always “informative experiences,” Brewer said. Representatives from the wineries or breweries share information about their processes and products, and the chef explains the motivation behind pairing each wine or beer with each course.

During the warmer months, the dinners are hosted in the main room, which offers a “cool, communal” atmosphere, Brewer said. When the weather cools down, they are held outdoors on the side patio.

Aero Crafters offers a place most evenings where Crossroads residents can listen to live music, socialize with friends and find new ones, and order from the extensive bar and inventive dining menus. They can relax or play backyard games such as cornhole, washers, oversized Jenga and oversized beer pong.

Certain evenings throughout each month, they can stimulate their brains with themed trivia nights, find their new favorite musicians at the VAMA Open Mic Night, get centered at Sunset Yoga and enjoy a four-course gourmet meal with wine or beer pairings.

Patrons can bring their pets and sit with them leashed on the patio.

All ages of visitors are welcome until 10 p.m.

“People have been asking if they can bring the kids, and for sure, Sundays are family-friendly,” Vela said.

Trump's El Paso visit dogged by protests

EL PASO – The message here wasn’t subtle. And neither was the anger.

Four days after a gunman walked into a Walmart and killed 22 people, hundreds of El Pasoans on Wednesday packed into a southside park just miles from the international border with Mexico to tell President Trump he isn’t welcome in this reeling border community.

Do you think it was appropriate for the president to visit El Paso after the recent mass shooting?

“We can’t sugar coat it anymore, (things) have gone too far,” Kylie Oliver said as she held up a sign that read ‘Fking do something!’ “We’ve tried to be politically correct but it’s time to stop. For me personally, it’s turned to anger.”

The tensions here underscored residents’ mounting anger and frustration about lawmakers’ seemingly intractable positions on stricter gun laws in a city still dealing with grief from what police suspect may have been a racially motivated massacre.

Wednesday’s event was an effort to help the city heal. But organizers said it was also an opportunity for El Pasoans to vent frustrations about the alleged gunman’s motives and whether Republican lawmakers – specifically the president – fueled hatred that led to the massacre.

Michael Lopez, who held a sign that read “You’re not welcome in El Paso, Texas Trump” said the president’s racist rhetoric has gone too far.

“The hate is too much. It offends me and now it’s affecting all of us,” he said.

The event ended at about the same time Trump landed in El Paso. Minutes later at a nearby hospital, he was greeted with protesters who walked from the nearby park who wanted to make sure their message was delivered.

The president didn’t necessarily instill confidence in those hoping for a message of unity earlier in the day. Hours before he went to Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed a half day after the El Paso tragedy, Trump criticized El Paso’s former U.S. Rep. Beto O’ Rourke, a Democrat. And he again mentioned race in his attack.

“Beto (phony name to indicate Hispanic heritage) O’Rourke, who is embarrassed by my last visit to the Great State of Texas, where I trounced him, and is now even more embarrassed by polling at 1% in the Democrat Primary, should respect the victims & law enforcement – & be quiet!” Trump tweeted.

O’Rourke spoke at Wednesday’s rally and didn’t mention Trump’s tweet specifically but appeared to take a swipe the president’s efforts to silence his critics.

“At a time that we are under attack , we are told to remain silent, we are standing up loud and proud to be counted with our fellow Americans as the best example of this country after one of the worst disasters she has ever seen,” he said.

Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, the president first visited the University Medical Center of El Paso, where he met with first responders, hospital staff and victims and their families. Then the president headed to the Emergency Operations Center, where he continued to meet with first responders, shaking their hands and praising their service.

“All over the world they’re talking about the job you’re doing,” Trump told the first responders before praising himself. “The respect for the office of the presidency, I wish you could have been in there to see it. I wish you could have been in there. It was no different here.”

Several of the state’s top leaders were also in El Paso on Wednesday to meet with the city’s legislative delegation to discuss what, if anything, the Republican leadership will do in the coming months to address gun violence or condemn Trump’s phrasing on immigration, which has repeatedly included the word “invasion.” Lt. Gov. Patrick Dan Patrick has also used the phrase, but he didn’t take questions during his brief visit to El Paso.

After meeting with local leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott said he will hold a series of roundtable discussions about the issue but did not say he would convene a special session of the Legislature to consider changing current gun laws. Police have said the weapon used in El Paso was purchased legally by the alleged gunman Patrick Crusius in North Texas.

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Republicans, spoke to reporters the governor’s roundtable. They condemned the shootings as racially motivated terrorism. They also hinted there could be some movement on gun legislation at the federal level. But it’s unclear how far lawmakers will go.

“Some of the work we’ve done in the past, I think, is helpful but it doesn’t cover something quite like this,” Cornyn said. “So we need to try to adjust and try to come up with ideas where we can hopefully identify people like this earlier … so they don’t commit these terrible crimes in the future.”