Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Bastrop Wildfires. It was Labor Day that year that I first heard about the fires; they were just fires then. One in Pflugerville, one in Bastrop, and a handful of others. The winds had picked up and caused the fires to spread; and they contributed to the fires themselves. The official report was that trees hit power lines and the winds blew the sparks, causing at least one of the fires that later converged into the Bastrop Wildfire Complex. Central Texas was in the height of the drought at that time, leaving so much dead grass, trees and brush. Wind + sparks + dry brush = wildfire. The Bastrop wildfire ultimately burned 34,000 acres, including the Lost Pines Forest and Bastrop State Park, over 1600 homes and 40 commercial buildings.
It wasn't just Bastrop, though they were hit the hardest by far. Steiner Ranch, a subdivision in West Austin, was evacuated due to fires. At my job in west Austin we could smell the burning in the air, but couldn't tell if it was Bastrop (east of Austin) or Steiner Ranch or any of the other fires that had popped up around town. Anywhere there was brush there was likely to be fire. My brother was living in Australia at the time and I was watching his house. I got a shocked text message at 3 in the morning, "Steiner Ranch is burning?!" It was about 10 miles from each of our homes.
I remember several things. I remember putting cat carriers by the front door for easy evacuation. I remember keeping a suitcase in the trunk of my car in case my condo burned down. I remember finding a website that tied in with the Austin Fire Department and spending large chunks of time monitoring that. We all wondered if the next big fire was going to be our home. I thought about leaving my condo and staying with Barry in Elgin, but there was no guarantee that his place was safer than mine. (He actually has more brush, so his house was probably in greater danger.) Several animal shelters, such as Austin Pets Alive, mobilized to evacuate the animals from the Bastrop animal shelter. (I volunteered to foster cats, but they didn't end up using me.) Here in Elgin (in Bastrop County), Barry let some people park a camper on his property while they waited to see if their home in Bastrop survived.
Meanwhile, Bastrop burned and burned. It was over a month before they were able to contain it. One problem was that so many of the resources that we might have borrowed from the State of Texas and other neighbors were being used for other wildfires. An obvious problem was the incredibly dry grass and dead trees and brush due to the drought. And, then wind wouldn't stop. The Colorado River might have been a natural barrier for a fire, except that the wind blew sparks and ashes across, allowing the wildfire to jump the river.
Ironically, it seems that Tropical Storm Lee was at least part of the cause for the winds, though we didn't receive rain from it. My brother and his husband live in New Jersey and they were being flooded and blown away by Hurricane Irene. That storm hit around August 28th, a week before our fires began. I would watch in dismay for the next few years as our drought continued and as they were time and again flooded by storms such has Hurricane Sandy the following year. (If we can build a pipeline for oil from Canada to Texas, why can't we build one for excess water from the Northeast to Texas?!)
Today, the Bastrop County Long-Term Recovery Project has organized an event to commemorate the fires, offering a place for people to come and feel safe and to remember – remember the people who acted to keep them safe, remember the people who lost everything, remember and discuss where they were when it happened and to be able to come together to see how far they've come in recovery. It was a surreal experience that none of us will soon forget.