From a distance, six separate plumes of smoke. State Troopers blocking Highways 71 and 21 heading east, both at 95. Trailers of horses heading west. A tent city of insurance companies set up to assist those who have lost homes or other property.
In Bastrop proper, there are no plumes of smoke. Instead, it hovers hangs over Bastrop so thick it looks like you’re about to drive into a thunderstorm. In all other directions, the sky is clear and blue.
In Bastrop, the clouds are coming from the six hundred homes and thousands of acres of pines that the fire devours. You can’t escape the smell – it clings to you like a bad memory. And the fire trucks, police and other officials scurry about from one site to another, always running, always trying to stay ahead of the next blaze.
That’s Bastrop, Texas today, two full days after the first fires started thanks to the high winds of Tropical Storm Lee, which brought Texas not a drop of rain but turned the state into a convection oven. Having spent so much time there over the past decade or so, I just had to drive into town today to see it for myself. And although I was far from the fires themselves (and thankfully so), it was impossible not to feel the sense of loss and desperation of the community.
Living in Webberville for ten years, a small town closer to Bastrop than Austin, I drove into Bastrop more times than I can count. Besides shopping at the box stores, I used to frequent Kimas Tejas Nursery, a fantastic organic nursery east of the roadblocks. My former boss lived in a cute little house along Hwy 71, and I found my dog Orion at a rest stop in the middle of the pine forest at the edge of Bastrop State Park.
Oh, the park. It’s an amazing oasis of tall, thick pines – what is also known as the “lost pines” because they exist in the middle of an area known more for its scrubby ash junipers and oaks, mesquite and yaupon holly.
Or it was… as of tonight the Austin American-Statesman reports that the fire “has consumed all but 50 to 100 acres of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park, although most of the park’s historical structures have been spared.”
It’s hard to imagine that the all of those small things – the rest stop, the nursery, my boss’ house, and even the park itself – are nothing but ash now. It’s hard to conceive that the huge Bastrop State Park is still burning two days in. It’s impossible to
comprehend 600 Bastrop families without their homes. Some of these people are my friends, my coworkers. I can only imagine how hard it must be for them to keep going when not only their home, but their entire neighborhood, is gone. And to those in surrounding areas who have to wait to see if it’s their turn next. The panic, the loss – you just can’t escape it in Bastrop today.
[As of 11am on 9/7/11 KVUE News tweeted that the number is up to 785 houses destroyed in Bastrop alone.]
And even as that fire rages on, other fires keep sprouting up all over the region, as if the devil himself has a grudge against central Texas and is personally scattering sparks across the area.
My heart goes out to the people who have lost family members to these fires; to those whose homes or businesses are gone; to the firefighters and police working tirelessly in the heat to keep the fires under control and people out of harm’s way; to the livestock and wildlife whose lives have been lost because in a fire like that, there’s just nowhere to go.
Living in Texas, I never thought I would live so close to a forest fire. I never imagined a forest fire in the middle of a city.
It’s a good reminder that everything we have can be gone in a flash – and to be ready for the day they knock on your door and say, you have five minutes to get out of your home. What would you do? What would I do? I hope I never have to find out.
Videos of the Bastrop fire, from YNN Austin