Brilliant orange spheres exploded to the east. Janice Butler could not go home. The most destructive wildfire in Texas history had claimed her house in its first harrowing hours. The horizon line, normally puffed with the tops of loblolly pines that fill the woods just past town, billowed with dark clouds of smoke and erupting blazes. The sight, visible from the motel on Highway 71 to which her family had evacuated, twisted a day that was already painfully surreal for Butler. "We knew when the fire got to a house," she said. "We could see when it hit a propane tank. It would die down, then all of a sudden, become bright orange." She rounds her hands as if holding the top of a basketball, then pulls them outward. "They were all over the place," she says of the flare-ups. "It was just bizarre.
"I knew when it hit my house."
September 2011 marked the end of an already brutal summer in Texas. That season was the hottest on record for any state in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service, pushing the state deeper into the record books, exacerbating the most intense and prolonged annual drought conditions since the Fifties.
On Sunday, Sept. 4, tragedy ignited north of Bastrop State Park, when an unfortunate concursion between a tree and a power line sparked a blaze in the town's Circle D subdivision. The county's Emergency Operations Center was well aware of several fires already threatening lives and property across Central Texas. A 9-1-1 call from the subdivision came in at 2:20pm. Assessing the danger within minutes, the Bastrop Fire Department issued requests for assistance from other area departments. By 2:33pm, 13 minutes into the event, the Bastrop Sheriff's Office began evacuating people from the area.
The fires set off what was to become known as the Bastrop County Complex fire, which burned for more than a month, scorched more than 32,000 acres, consumed 1,696 structures, and took two lives. It was, according to the Bastrop Complex Wildfire Case Study, published in May 2012 by the Texas Forest Service, the "most destructive wildland urban interface wildfire in Texas history." To put that into perspective: In Texas, the fire that ranks second destroyed 168 homes in April 2011. In the United States, the Bastrop Complex fire ranks as the third largest home-loss fire to date, and due to the area's relatively small population, number one in total loss per capita.
Butler and husband Max had gone to Waco to see their son Mose off on a new school year. News of the fires cut short their trip. By the time they raced back home, with Mose in close pursuit, their daughter Chloe, who'd stayed at home in Bastrop, had already been evacuated, and neighbors had secured a motel room for the family.
The next day, by all reports, they knew their home was gone. "Our home was a mile or so [from the fire's ignition]. We live on a loop of 47 homes; there are seven left. We'd moved a historic home onto our property years earlier – a 100-year-old house with 100-year-old logs, pine floors, walls ..." says Butler. "Once the fire got there, I'm sure it burned fast and hot and forever."
With her brood reunited, Butler found safe haven west of Downtown at the Comfort Suites, along the Highway 71 access road. It would be their home for the next two weeks.
"It seemed like my whole neighborhood was there," she laughed. "Churches brought hamburgers and hot dogs. In many ways, it felt festive." But reality was anything but festive. "Everyone was zombies, really," she said, "totally zombies. The fires were not going away.
"The grieving comes in small bursts," Butler says, remembering standing in line to receive donated items – kitchen cleaners, pillowcases, towels, and other household goods. "I was there with my friend, Violet John, and she said, 'Janice, out of all the years of volunteer work that we've done together, did you ever think we'd be on the receiving end?' And I said, 'No, not ever, ever, ever.' We both broke down in tears and hugged, then went back to picking out pillowcases. That was when the lightbulb went off for me: I have to be back in a serving role."
Bastrop attorney Christine Files evacuated her small ranch just northwest of downtown Smithville that same Sunday. "By the time we left, it was raining down big balls of black." The "balls" turned out to be "pieces of insulation from people's houses and chunks of burnt bark." She assumed upon evacuating that this would be the last time she'd see her home. While she rescued her horses and pets, she had to let loose 15 head of cattle – their only chance at escape and the last time she'd see them. Files was fortunate, though. In the end, she did not lose her home.
Lisa Nolan wasn't so lucky. Her "cabin in the woods," as she calls it, an eight-acre slice of heaven – four acres of nothing but trees – was located in the Lost Pines forest between Bastrop State Park and Buescher State Park. That Sunday she'd planned to barbecue and cut loose with some friends. Upon orders to evacuate, the day got sober real fast. After moving her pets to Houston, Nolan immediately came back to help the volunteer fire department divert traffic. That night she slept in her car.
Her home went up in flames the next day. "Everything was gone. There was nothing left but shriveled-up metal."
By week's end, the fire was still burning. Gov. Rick Perry requested federal aid for Bastrop on Friday, Sept. 9, and President Obama signed the official declaration of a national disaster the same day.
Most of the property loss occurred in the first week. And for as much devastation that occurred, the damage could have been far more cataclysmic. Files spoke with Smithville firefighters as she evacuated. They were adamant, she remembered them saying, "'We're gonna hold it at the river!' Because they knew if they didn't hold it at the river, there may not be another chance to stop this fire until it reached San Antonio."
Volunteers and professionals also fought to protect Bastrop State Park – 96% of the park burned, but 100 acres and the historic Civilian Conservation Corps structures, including clusters of cabins built in the Thirties, were saved. Stories of selfless law officers enacting mandatory evacuations at the risk of life and limb, and of firefighters saving strangers' houses while their own homes went up in flames may ring of Texas tall-tale-ism. Sadly, in the fires of Bastrop County, these accounts came true many times over.
"I never imagined that rock and brick actually pulverized," says Files. "But it does. Folks who had brick and stone homes thought they were going back to something. It was quite a shock when there was nothing left but a pile of rubble."
Files echoes Butler's post-disaster "zombie" summation. Her office sits on a prominent downtown corner. The center of town, with its idyllic Main Street loaded with local restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, was unscathed by the fire. Everything there seemed normal. Except for the people. "Pretty much one in every five people I saw each day had lost their homes. People had no idea what they were going to do. They couldn't think, they cried at the drop of a hat, and they were scared to death." Files began attending meetings of the newly formed long-term recovery committee, which had its first meeting on Sept. 27. Bastrop County would burn for another 12 days.
The fire was officially declared extinguished on Oct. 9, five weeks after it began. After the declaration, says Files, the county was charged with the massive cleanup, and with the promise of federal funding, a Long Term Recovery Organization to coordinate resources was mandated. Thousands of volunteers flowed into Bastrop County from all over the country: churches, disaster-relief organizations; all coordinated through the new committee by two local volunteers, Kate Johnston and Paige Webb.
The need for a coordinated effort was clear. Amidst the messy challenge of competitive funding, the group focused its efforts on addressing the No. 1 unmet need – housing. With "no offices, no staff, no central telephone number for people to get assistance," says Files, and very little support and resources, the seeds for what was to become the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team (BCLTRT) managed to germinate.
The county had just enough resources to do a massive pick-up to haul away debris, as long as debris was put curbside. Unfortunately, without express permission from landowners, neither the county nor volunteer crews were allowed to go onto property to clear the lots. Johnston and Webb's volunteers canvassed to obtain this necessary permission, so cleanup crews could be dispatched, says Files. "Kate and Paige and the volunteers covered 1,400 of the almost 1,700 properties."
Concurrently, pop-up nonprofits stoked a heated competition for dollars – the mythical millions that were supposed to be pouring in to the ravaged county. This anticipated flood of early cash relief, says Files, never arrived. But fortunately, legitimate groups with experience, equipment, and commitment – Mennonite Disaster Service, Christian Aid Ministries, Samaritan's Purse International Relief, and AmeriCorps, among others – were pouring in.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency worker who knew the Butlers from college asked if Janice – who had career experience in finance, media, and insurance – would be interested in joining with the newly formed long-term recovery team as treasurer. "It was a big job, and it was a volunteer job, and it was a distraction," she says. Her family was able to rebuild; their insurance and other resources covered their material loss, but of course not without great mental and emotional anguish. "It was an opportunity for me to not think too much about my own situation; I was helping other people think about theirs."
The group was aware of "276 uninsured homes and 747 families that were low-income and underinsured," says Files, who had been elected BCLTRT board president. So we were looking at over 1,000 families that needed assistance with rebuilding ... and $6,000 in the bank."
Meanwhile, into the first months of 2012, the county began its cleanup, ministries began rebuilding homes, and folks began receiving relief in the form of FEMA and insurance checks. In some people's cases, the combined resources were enough to get them into housing. In many cases, the numbers would not add up (see "Trickle Down," at left). That's where BCLTRT would come in; but before they could come in, they had to figure out where people were.
Many people had left Bastrop County. With 673 rental homes destroyed, an already tight rental market had been wiped out, according to Files. "Even the well-insured had to leave town. We estimate that the loss to Bastrop is 50% of the people whose homes – owned or rented – were lost. People who remained stayed with family and friends, moved RVs onto properties, bought small sheds, cargo containers, camper trailers, and FEMA trailers.
"You're familiar with Bastrop?" asks Files with a grin. "The people in Bastrop? A lot of people didn't want government in their lives and didn't even apply. Here's the catch with FEMA trailers: FEMA comes and checks what you're doing to move forward with your recovery. If you show no sign of moving forward, they will take your FEMA trailer away from you." So the team scrambled to add the population in FEMA trailers to its priority list of elderly and disabled – an outreach nightmare because, due to privacy rules, FEMA would not initially share information with the group on the locations of these trailers.
"Our mission from the very beginning," Files says of BCLTRT, "has been to help the folks who had no way of recovering on their own – and ultimately, to help Bastrop recover." So they went out into the community and began searching for the FEMA trailers on their own.
"Construction was a new phase for us. It didn't take a lot of skill to do clean-up. But a rebuild is a whole other scenario," says Files. Their partnership with Lutheran Social Services resulted in a paid salary for a construction supervisor, Daryl Ready, who'd had just come from Galveston where he had been helping with post-Ike reconstruction.
Also around this time, BCLTRT received a grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to hire Kate Johnston as the volunteer coordinator. "So Kate would send Daryl the volunteers," reports Files. "We had case managers prioritizing the jobs, and things began to flow. In May 2012, we opened our first office with a central phone line. That was big."
A month's stay in a hotel was a far cry from Lisa Nolan's little "cabin in the woods." After the clean-up, she wanted to get back to some form of normalcy. She received $7,000 from FEMA and bought a temporary building to put on her land.
"At least I have a roof over my head," she says. "It's paid for. But I didn't have enough income for my mortgage." So she took her insurance money and paid off what she could of her property; she still owes $20,000. When the fire hit, Nolan was underinsured. In April 2011, she'd lost her job. When it came time to renew her homeowner's insurance, she had to budget realistic premiums for coverage.
"I applied for everything," she says. In late 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $28 million grant for Bastrop. The Texas General Land Office was charged by the governor with disbursing the HUD grant. The GLO in turn hired Lutheran Social Services (which was already on the scene in Bastrop) as case managers. Soon after Nolan had applied, she got a call from Lutheran Social Services. "I was so happy. They said, 'It looks like you're approved!' I felt so thankful, so good. Finally, I'm going to have a real house. Then she received another call early in 2013. Lutheran Social Services said they needed proof from the mortgage company that it was a forced mortgage payoff. "I said, 'It wasn't "forced" – I had no other choice.'"
"The disaster after the disaster in Bastrop County was when folks received an insurance check made out to both them and the mortgage company," says attorney Files, "In order to qualify for a HUD block grant, you had to prove that your mortgage company required you to pay off your mortgage. If you just simply sent them your check, and they cashed it, that did not count as 'required.' So that disqualified a number of folks."
The BCLTRT learned of Lisa Nolan's situation from their friends at Lutheran Social Services in the spring of 2013. "The girls came knocking on my door, and said, 'Lisa, we want you to apply with us to get a house built from one of the groups we work with.'"
It all happened so quickly. Nolan was shocked and made sure the women knew she'd failed to qualify before. They set her up with the Mennonites, and construction on her foundation began Nov. 4. "I've already turned in my roof color, and paint color, and flooring preference," she says with a hint of giddy disbelief.
Last Sunday, Nov. 24, the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team celebrated the dedication of its 80th home. The group is currently at work – pulling deeds, obtaining permits, doing inspections, lining up builders and construction accounts – on another 28 homes. A $1.5 million Red Cross donation in September of this year has breathed new life into the group's ability to serve. With still more folks in need, and with willing, skilled volunteers like the Mennonites, Christian Aid, and United Methodist's NOMADS and others, BCLTRT is projecting that they can also take on seven to 10 more homes before summer 2014, when the builders groups finish their Texas mission and go back home to their crops and day-to-day lives.
"Every day," says Janice Butler, now executive director of BCLTRT, "I wake up and expect to be a Mennonite, because of all the lessons I've learned from them and all these other groups – what it is to be humble, what patience really means, how prayer can truly change everything, and what it feels like to be not only generous, but to have generosity bestowed on you."
Butler and her family are back in their neighborhood on the same footprint and in a home built with insurance proceeds. "The generosity we've seen makes me tear up. I've always wondered if 'what goes around, comes around.' Now I've seen it, and I do believe it."
See more on the Bastrop story online at austinchronicle.com.
Copyright © 2015 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.