On Sunday, September 4, 2011 the Bastrop County Complex Fire ignited (the article has a factual error – there were only 2 deaths due to the fire, not 4). It is still considered the worst wildfire in Texas history. The primary fire started in Circle D in the northeast corner of County Road and Charolais Dr but later merged with another fire that began at roughly the same time 4 miles to the north. The cause of the fire in Circle D was a dead pine tree blowing onto the electrical line (as reported by the home owner who first called 911).
There is a great deal of information on line about the fire and the impact it had on the Bastrop community. The fire burned 95% of the Bastrop State Park, a huge portion of Tahitian Village and areas in between. Area wide, 1,673 homes were destroyed with an estimated $325 million of insured property damage. The fire burned for 36 days and destroyed 32,400 acres. There have been over 2 million baby pine trees re-planted in the burn zone since then.
The fire was so historically significant, the NPR station in Austin, KUT, organized an oral history project, inviting residents who were burned out to record their accounting of that time. There was also a 1 year anniversary special titled “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires”- which covers all the area fires, including ours. (It’s an hour long audio recording.)
Since the fire, the area has had a series of setbacks. Memorial Day, 2015, had a heavy downpour which combined with the burn zone in the state park, resulted in the state park dam failing, flooding homes down stream. The Hidden Pines fire of 2015, in an area east of the state park on highway 71, added insult to injury…. And then another flood on Memorial Day 2016. August 2017, Hurricane Harvey visited resulting in over 18 inches of rain here in Circle D. Many of those events were declared disasters, in an area still very much recovering from what is generally considered hell on earth.
That’s all the official history. The unofficial history are the accounts of all of us who went through it – both as fire people, fire fighters and those who only evacuated but were not burned out. Everyone who was in the area that terrible day, we are and always will be impacted.
We ARE recovered. We have adjusted to our “new normal”. We have moved on. Insurance claims are finished, houses rebuilt or people have moved out of the area. We no longer know our FEMA numbers (which everyone needed in order to get any service – it was used as a way to verify that we had actually lost our home). We have planted baby pine trees and watered them through the desperately dry and hot summers. Some of the oldest of those babies are nearing 20 feet tall now! We have made new, good memories in our homes here in Circle D. We are happy to be home.
But, all that recovery is not to say that we are like we were before the fire. This was a life altering event and times like that are never forgotten… It changes who you are, alters your perception of the world in ways that are indescribable and often unknowable to those who have experienced it. It reminds me of the changes that my grandparents who farmed through the Dustbowl in Kansas experienced. Changed but not destroyed – toughened perhaps and with a perspective different than others. Maybe a bit cynical but older and wiser – prepared and ready to face the next challenge.
After the fire, the biggest thing that others would say to us was “well, it’s just stuff, at least you have your lives”. Which IS true. But yet, it’s not at all true either. There is a podcast done by 2 UT psychology profs who did a little segment on this topic and explained why stuff is more than stuff. Short answer? Stuff is a tie to memories. It’s a good listen and can be found here: https://www.kut.org/post/home-where-your-heart-why-losing-home-so-devastating
Us fire people ARE twitchy. Watch to see what happens on the Facebook or Nextdoor community pages when a fire is in the area. We’re not scared so much as… concerned. The 2011 fire moved FAST – most people had barely enough time to grab their purse and escape. Most of us lost absolutely everything, pets, horses… everything. So yes, we want to know when there is a fire and where it is at and what the % contained is and is the helicopter coming to drop water and what about the air tanker of water and do the fire crews need anything … We want to know because we need to know if we need to pack up our cars and get out – while we still can.
We also know that just because there’s a 1% chance (or whatever it really is) of a disaster affecting any one person… the fact of the matter is, SOMEONE has to be that 1%. And just because you were in that 1% already, it doesn’t protect you from being impacted again. In the weeks/months after the fire, I met many people who had lost their homes in a tornado or in Hurricane Katrina or another fire… and moved here… and lost it all again. We know that we could be the next double disaster people…
Many people move to our community and exclaim that it’s so beautiful here – many not realizing that there even WAS a fire not so long ago. (Hint – if the pine trees are less than 70 feet tall, you’re in the burn zone.) And those same people are often frustrated or confused at those of us who don’t immediately agree to the beauty of the area. The truth is – it IS beautiful here, even now. We can see that and we revel in the regrowth, the new trees, our beautiful homes… It’s truly spectacular.
But for those of us who lost it all, we see so much more than the beauty. We see the flames, we see the forest as it was – dense and tall and so thick that you couldn’t see your neighbors home. We see re-entry day, the day we were first allowed back to visit our homes… when all there was was ash and the heavy smell of smoke. We see months of outsiders coming to help – power crews from across the country helping Bluebonnet Electric restore services to our communities. Of the legions of volunteers so generous to come and help remove the debris of our homes. Of the looters who came and stole what little of value we had left. We see friends and family helping to sift through the ashes, looking for grandma’s wedding rings. The mountains of burned trees pile on the side of the road so that the county could haul them away. We remember the mind boggling decisions we had to make – move or rebuild. We remember those who died after the fire, not from the flames but from the stress of it all. We remember our pets who burned in the fire, their ghosts running in the echoes of the flames. We see the memories of our childrens lives, blown away with the soot in the wind, their first steps in our homes nothing more than memories.
So, when people remark that it’s been X number of years since the fire, you should be over it already. You’re right – we should be over it. We ARE over it. But we are forever altered by it. And we very much hope that you can understand why all these years later, it takes not much more than the smell of smoke in the air to bring back all of the emotions and memories of that horrible time in 2011.
In the Bastrop area, you can throw a rock and hit 3 people who lost their homes in the fire. Circle D is the epicenter of that … We’re proud to have survived it all. And we desperately hope that we forever hold the title of the worst wildfire in Texas history – simply so that no other community has to go through anything worse than what we went through.
Jeannie Jessup, Circle D Civic Association Board President
September 4, 2019