The Elements of Summer Fun
Suddenly Last Summer: How Bastrop Saved Her Cabins in the Woods
The last thing a Texan wants to think about this summer is last summer. Who wouldn't want to repress the memory of record scorchers and wildfires that can be seen from space? But Bastrop State Park deserves to be remembered now more than ever.
The 6,600 acres of loblolly pine and hardwood forest may have been transformed by the conflagration, but they were not destroyed by it. A walk on some of the restored trails reveals a fresh understory that is still sapling green as the plants respond to the simultaneous challenge and advantage of the ash. White poppies and purple thistle bloom side by side. Looking up, it's clear: fire is an erratic mistress. While some trees are charred stumps, others remain untouched and are now in full bloom. It's a fascinating and eerie landscape, and it's as tenacious as the dedicated folks that risked their lives to save it.
Thanks to the heroic work of park employees and local volunteers, the historic cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression era remain at the heart of the park. These wood and stone structures display the quality and workmanship of a bygone time. Many are made of heavy stone and dug right into the hillside, reminiscent of an English country cottage. Architecturally, they parallel Modernisme, with organic arabesques and the mixed use of materials, but with a rather more protestant sense of ornamentation. Wood-burned into one mantle piece is the maxim: Nothing to Excess. In other words, if Gaudi had married a Hobbit, they would have built a house very much like these.
Site Manager Roger Dolle talked about the battle to save them and how it was nearly lost. He described fighting the flames in the heart of the woods, when the sky was blacked out with smoke. The sound of the fire, he said, "was like a tornado or a freight train." Pine embers from burning woodland up to two miles away were pulled into the air above the treetops, making rolling fireballs in the blackened sky high above them.
"The impulse of a firefighter is to put out the fire," says Dolle, "but there comes a time when hard decisions have to be made." In the face of the inferno, Dolle and his crew were forced to sacrifice two isolated overlook cabins in order to concentrate their efforts on the larger group of cabins by the pond. They had blown, chopped, and raked out every bit of potential fuel surrounding them. They had gone against that firefighter's instinct and set blazes to back-burn ahead of the fire, and had bulldozed a fire line that can still be seen a few hundred meters from the cabins. With two rangers on each cabin and a portable pump, they were fast draining the already low pond as they continuously soaked the wood shingled roofs. The fire was consuming trees a few feet away from cabin walls, which heated so much that the plastic molding around the windows melted away.
For the safety of the firefighters, the decision was made to pull out. As they gathered for a head count and gave in to the loss of the historic cabins, something happened. "You can't fight a fire that's burning 100 feet above you in the treetops," Dolle explained. That is the purpose of the fire line. The crew received word that the clear swath they had bulldozed earlier had finally worked. The fire dropped down to the ground where they could get an advantage on it, and ultimately the cabins were saved.
Aside from the scarred trunks and spotty canopy of the surrounding woods, kicked back on a cabin porch, you would never guess you were at the scene of this drama. The pond is full again, and the forest is blooming. You can listen to the singing of the endangered Houston Toad and watch the fireflies hover in the twilight. Weekends at the cabins are already booked through June; it's best to come out on a weekday for your piece of solitude. Ninety percent of the park has been reopened, including the swimming pool, though group and scout camping areas are scheduled for a complete overhaul. The return of the creekside camping area is anticipated for the end of June.
A few years ago, the men of the original Civilian Conservation Corps gathered here to remember and be celebrated, 70 years after the creation of the New Deal. As young men, they gladly engaged in back-breaking physical labor for a dollar a day. Out of their $30 a month salary, $25 was sent directly to their families. Because of advancing age, Bastrop has likely seen the last of the CCC reunions. With last summer's firefight the state park and its cabins acquired one more layer to this history. Who knows, now that the men who built them have mostly passed on, decades from now the men and women who saved them may gather to remember and be celebrated themselves.