A tale of fire and ashes

Heartbreaking… and heartwarming.

The fire isn't raging... but it's not extinguished either. (photo by Jackie Dana)

Bastrop, Texas is struggling with a fire that has been burning for a week, and is still less than half contained. A city with 7,218 residents, it has been devastated by the fire that has burned tens of thousands of acres and over 1400 homes.

On my visit today to Bastrop, I wondered how things would differ from my previous drive through Bastrop on Tuesday. Like then, the first thing you see as you approach Bastrop from Austin is the cloud of smoke that never leaves. Closer in, there’s a dingy haze and a smell of smoke, dust and ash that will give you a headache within an hour and clog your lungs before the day is through.

Remains of a house in Tahitian Village (photo by Jackie Dana)

Many subdivisions have suffered the ravages of the gigantic fire that still burns today. Tahitian Village, a large wooded neighborhood to the south of highway 71, was closed to resident since Sunday. Some of the roads are now open, and homeowners are unwilling lottery ticket holders as they drive down the streets to their homes. Were they one of the lucky ones? Indeed, the fire seemed to choose houses at random, reducing one house to a pile of scorched bricks while the very next house escaped unscathed. In one yard a swing set might be nothing but a charred bit of twisted metal, but its neighbors’ garden greets the day as if nothing happened.

Fire crew at edge of Bastrop State Park (photo by Jackie Dana)

It’s difficult to witness the haphazard destruction, and impossible to drive by the destroyed homes without deep empathy for the people who, through no fault of their own, have lost everything – homes, vehicles, possessions, and even their pets.

It’s also gutwrenching to drive past what used to be a stately forest of loblolly pine trees in Bastrop State Park, which was another loser in the fire lottery, and one that lost very, very badly.

Bastrop State Park (photo by Jackie Dana)

All 6500 acres of pine trees, save the tiny triangle of growth at the park entrance, have been reduced to smoldering cinders and charred trunks. Even in areas the fire abandoned days ago, logs still send off curls of smoke into the sky.

You want desperately to believe that the trees will pull through, and like so many forests, in time the park will rejuvenate. That takes rain, however – something central Texas hasn’t seen in months, and our forecast includes nothing but hot, dry days for the foreseeable future.

Cafe along Hwy 71 (photo by Jackie Dana)

Along Highway 71, which just opened this morning, the median is charred, frayed powerlines lay on the ground, and even a guard rail is bent and blackened from the heat of the fire. Many businesses along the highway well outside of Bastrop heading towards Smithville are nothing but twisted metal and memory. Along the shoulders on both sides of Highway 71, even as the forest and fields smolder, dozens of police, State Troopers, fire fighters, animal control, and other vehicles trying to ensure the fire is out, people stay out of the danger zones, and traffic moves along at a safe speed.

Outside the fire zone, residents are trying to recapture bits of their lives. Dozens of volunteers and businesses have donated their time, their spaces, their goods, all to help the community try to put lives back together. At the Bastrop Convention and Exhibit Center a long line of people waited to get new drivers’ licenses. All over the city are tents with piles of clothing, stacks of water, boxes of food. There are places to get free internet access, sort out insurance issues, register for services.

Austin Pets Alive! volunteers outside the Bastrop Police Station (photo by Jackie Dana)

Austin Pets Alive!, which took a leadership role in evacuating animals from the Bastrop County Animal Shelter and finding fosters for evacuated pets, has a triage center set up at the dog park behind Tractor Supply, and are treating all pets found in the fire zone and helping to connect them with their owners. They’ve been working with Animal Control to find animals left behind. They also accept pet food donations. One of the APA representatives told us about a man who was reunited with his dog but didn’t recognize him at first because in this short time the dog had lost ten pounds. Today they treated five cats who were found in a home still alive, but very hungry and thirsty! They’ve also treated dogs with burned paws or other injuries and worry that many dogs and cats are still roaming in the wooded areas, frightened, hungry and injured.

One of many lines for assistance (photo by Aida Cerda Prazak)

There are so many sad tales of loss, and untold stories of heroic efforts by the firefighters, police officers, federal agencies, forestry officials, and members of the Bastrop and surrounding communities to save homes and lives, and to try (often in vain) to keep the fire from spreading further. I hope that in the end, there will be even more tales of survival – the survival of individuals, the survival and relocation of lost pets, and most of all, the survival and strength of a small but determined community.

In the meantime, it’s critical for people to understand that as of Saturday, Sept. 10th, the fires are not all out, and not everyone can return home. Even though no cloud of smoke continues to drift into Austin, that doesn’t mean the disaster is over. In the upcoming days, donations of time, money and goods will be desperately needed.

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