Trial by Fire

This year will be remembered for a terrifying series of wildfires that ravaged almost every corner of the state, from Bastrop County to Possum Kingdom, from Amarillo to the Mexican border. All told, the flames torched nearly three million acres in an unprecedented disaster—and perhaps an omen of things to come. What did it look and feel like on the ground the year Texas burned?

December 2011By Comments

Photographs by Dan Winters

Here’s a pair of statistics that will singe your eyebrows: According to the Texas Forest Service, over the past quarter century there have been eighteen wildfires that each consumed more than 50,000 acres of Texas land. Twelve of those fires occurred in 2011. The Schwartz Fire. The Swenson Fire. The Wildcat Fire. The Rockhouse Fire. The White Hat Fire. The Deaton Cole Fire. The Frying Pan Fire. The Iron Mountain Fire. The Cannon Complex Fire. The Dickens Complex Fire. The Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire. The Possum Kingdom Complex Fire. And that doesn’t include the Bastrop County Complex Fire, which over the course of five weeks incinerated a relatively modest 34,000 acres but destroyed 1,649 homes. In terms of human habitation, it was the single most devastating wildfire in Texas history.

Without question, 2011 was a year like none we’ve ever experienced. Ravaged forests, miles-long smoke plumes, and exploding propane tanks began to seem almost commonplace. Dried out by months of drought and blistering temperatures, the entire landscape was reduced to little more than kindling, primed to explode into flames at the slightest instigation. The awful season began in earnest on April 6, when sparks from a cutting torch set off the Swenson Fire, which burned 122,500 acres near Abilene. Three days later an electrical short in an abandoned building started the third-largest wildfire in Texas history, the Rockhouse Fire, which destroyed 314,444 acres. Wildfires are nothing new in Texas, of course, but the pace of these fires was something different. By fall nearly 3,000,000 acres had burned.

Was this terrifying outbreak an anomaly? Probably not. Of the eighteen massive fires 
mentioned above, only one predated 2000. Four took place in 2008. The biggest occurred in 2006. And if the recent past doesn’t offer much comfort, neither does the near future. The rolling series of droughts that fueled all of these conflagrations shows no sign of letting up. The La Niña pattern, meteorologists note, is expected to stave off rainfall in Texas for at least one more year. Other experts warn that we may be in for an extended drought like the one that plagued the state from 1949 to 1956. Still others consult tree rings and evoke the specter of the twenty- and forty-year mega-droughts that struck Texas during the medieval era and the sixteenth century. And then there are those who worry that climate change has wrought a permanent alteration, that in the twenty-first century, Fredericksburg may feel a lot more like Midland.

If so, we’re going to have to start thinking differently about wildfires. Historically, we’ve regarded them as part of the cycle of nature: burning down the old to make way for the new. But as the desolate photographs taken by James H. Evans (the Rockhouse Fire) and Dan Winters (Bastrop) on the following pages suggest, that cycle may have been broken. The fires were too hot, the grasses are too dry, the forecast is too bleak for the land to spring back anytime soon. A West Texas rancher, who offers one of the eight testimonials included here, notes that his neighbors fear that the Rockhouse Fire burned so fiercely that it may have wiped out not only the leaves and stems above the ground but the root systems below, leaving nothing to grow back. They’re hardly alone in their pessimism. All across the state you’ll find farmers, ranchers, and firefighters wondering whether our world will ever look or feel the same. —Jeff Salamon

THE ROCKHOUSE FIRE, 
April 9–May 15

BOBBY MCKNIGHT, 51, rancher. My wife, Linda, had been with me working cattle down in Marathon that Saturday [April 9], and just on a whim we decided to go back to our house outside of Fort Davis. We hadn’t been there too terribly long when we saw some smoke to the south. I’ve seen a million grass fires in my life, and I knew this was a pretty big one. We’d had a lot of rain last year, but it had been historically dry lately, so there was a lot of grass that was all dry, meaning a ton of fuel. And it was a windy day. Not just breezes, but 50- to 60-mile-an-hour gusts. It was kind of the perfect storm. But still, I had no idea it was going to hit like it did. It started in Marfa, traveled 26 miles in about an hour and a half, and literally surrounded the town.

We also have a second house in Fort Davis, the house I grew up in. I’d left three horses there to overnight, so I drove over there to pen them and call our ranch foreman to come pick them up, just in case. As soon as I got there, Linda called and said the fire was getting closer, and when I got back, flames were all around our home. At some point we lost our electricity, which meant our water was gone—we’re on well water, and without electricity, the pumps went down. So you’re out there squirting with a hose and all of a sudden the water runs dry, and then you’re feeling pretty helpless. Fortunately, I’d brought a cattle sprayer home with me from Marathon. That’s a machine you use to spray cattle for lice and different things. It holds about two hundred gallons and has a high-pressure hose on it, and I had it full of water. That was big.

We used the sprayer to keep the fire line from the big trees around our house, but the heat was so great they were getting scorched anyhow. It was unbearable. We had bandanas on, but still it hurt to breathe. A few days later we had to dig up our sewer lines, which we thought were clogged, and saw that the heat had melted the heavy PVC pipe. They looked like cauliflower.

It was pretty grim there for a little bit. Fort Davis is a little town, and resources are limited. There were just too many fronts for our volunteer fire department, so a lot of people were on their own. We were lucky that the Valentine Volunteer Fire Department showed up at the end of our driveway. Without them, we might have lost our house.

We stayed on it for maybe two hours, until eventually the wind became our friend and blew the fire past us. There were still a lot of embers and sparks flying in the air, and we were terrified they would get on the roof. So Linda stayed and shoveled dirt on them while I grabbed the sprayer, got in my truck, and went back to my family home.

When I drove up I was just sick. Everything was burning down—the barn, some outbuildings, and the house I grew up in. The highway patrol had stopped our foreman from coming in after those horses, had said it was too dangerous, and the horses were all killed. The foreman had called me when they stopped him, and I’d told him the horses would be okay. I was mistaken. It was just a tragedy.

But we were lucky. We didn’t lose any cattle. I know a guy that lost sixty-something head and another that lost sixty or seventy head. But really, all of our neighbors that got hit got hit pretty hard.

A lot of people lost houses in Fort Davis. Miles and miles of fence, which people are still rebuilding today. It’ll be a long time getting everything put back together.

But even then, people have said that, depending on the heat of the fire, permanent damage might have been done to the root system. There’s a lot of burned country. It’s just dirt. As far as ranching goes, we won’t recover, or even find out if we can, until we get some rain.

The Possum Kingdom 
Complex Fire, 
April 9–May 12

JACKIE FEWELL, 54, real estate agent. I was driving home from Fort Worth to Graford on Thursday, April 14, when I first saw the fire. As I was pulling into my neighborhood, on the south side of Possum Kingdom Lake, I could see huge plumes of smoke on the west side. At about 9:00 that night, I was having dinner with a few of my colleagues, and some of them took off by boat to see if they could rescue anyone. After they arrived at the dock, the smoke was so thick that they could hear voices but they couldn’t see anyone.

On Friday, a fire started on the east side, not far from my real estate office, and it burned down a church. The situation was serious, but a lot of the news on Facebook was really exaggerated. So in an effort to get out accurate information, I started a page on our company website.

The fires continued to spread on Saturday, but we weren’t feeling threatened in our neighborhood yet. A lot of folks kept coming by our house that night to compare notes over a couple of beers: “Do you think we need to leave? Do you think it’s going to get bad?” The rumors were running rampant about what had burned, so I kept updating the website based on information from people all over the lake. Finally, about four o’clock on Sunday, an officer came by to encourage us to evacuate, and he really looked frightened. That was about the point most of us decided to leave. As we drove out, we saw ash and smoldering rubble. I kept thinking, “Surely they’ll be able to stop it.”

We got ourselves situated in a hotel room in Mineral Wells, and then things just got so much worse on Monday. The level of activity on the website started coming in at a fast pace, so I had people helping me keep things up-to-date. All hell broke loose, with the fire coming through developments like Sportsman’s World and Gaines Bend, which is my area, and it burned all the way through. We started getting reports from people who could watch the fire from the opposite shore. One man had video cameras on his property, so he turned them around to the other side of the lake, and we were posting what we saw. I’d go to bed at about 2 or 3 in the morning and get back up at 6, and people expected us to have information. The phone would start ringing at about 6:30 with news.

Unfortunately, we were really frustrated with our cell service. We couldn’t maintain a phone call for more than a few seconds, so on the blog we asked if AT&T could enhance our service. I think we started asking for help on Monday, and we got a call from a regional guy who told me that he was doing everything he could. Then I heard from a more highly placed person who said he could do this or that, but it was never enough. So I finally posted a heartfelt plea telling AT&T, “Please don’t call to discuss since the cell signal will only drop. Please just show up with resources and give us a hand. PLEASE????” Before long I got a text from someone who said, “I just saw the AT&T COW [cell on wheels]. It’s filling up with gas outside Weatherford.” Soon the front desk of the hotel called, and the person said, “AT&T would like you to look out your window.” There were five guys standing outside the van waving at me.

We didn’t get back into our house until the end of April—there was nothing like seeing with my own two eyes that it had survived—and by then, according to Google Analytics, we had a million page views on the site. I think the blog is now what my company is known for. We had some rain recently, and people looked to us to know how much had fallen. On October 5 there was a house fire, and I had three people text me about that. People think we’re always going to know the answer to these things.

The Cooper Mountain 
Ranch Fire, 
April 11–April 23

 J. A. ROBINSON, 64, Fisher County sheriff. The fire started April 11 at Cooper Mountain, in Kent County, and it spread southeastward. For the most part, the vegetation in its path was pastureland: mesquite trees and sage brush and whatever they call that grass.

It was moving fast from the very beginning. I could absolutely see it. Kent County’s fire department and sheriff’s department didn’t have enough people to handle a situation like that. We first got notification to assist them sometime before noon. Kent County gave us a call to block a road about five miles into their county because the level of smoke had become hazardous. I was out in my car driving all over. We were trying to stay out of the fire’s way. We kept moving back.

As it edged closer to my county, it jumped State Highway 70 and went east. At first I thought it was going to stop at the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, but with the wind blowing like it was, it just kept on going. So now it was on both sides of the highway and spreading out wide.

Around 8:30 at night, a call came in from the Texas Forest Service that Rotan, the most populated town in the fire’s path, was in danger, so a DPS captain out of Abilene made the call to evacuate all 1,600 people. But now we had a little problem: I’ve only got 4 officers working for me and we had nine hundred square miles to cover. We’re the only law enforcement in this county besides 2 troopers and 1 game warden. So we called in officers from neighboring cities and counties and the Forest Service to assist, bringing us to a total of about 25.

Everyone in town could see the smoke coming in; they knew we were in trouble. Even if they weren’t looking out their windows, this is a small town. Word gets out quickly. That made our job a lot easier. It’s always hard for people to leave—especially the older ones. There was a gentleman in his eighties on the north side of town who gets around on a walker, and when the chief deputy went to warn him about the fire, he said, “I’ve been living here thirty years, and by God, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” He steadfastly refused. They spent a little while standing there talking to him, and finally his daughter showed up and managed to hand-carry him out of there.

The fire grazed the northern city limits of Rotan, where there are structures, but the structures didn’t burn. There was one house with siding that had melted off. At another house, the fire had knocked out windows but didn’t burn the house down. How that happened, I don’t know.

The Deaton Cole Fire, 
April 25–May 12

CHAD SCHAFER, 29, Val Verde County firefighter and EMT. I had a job interview in Del Rio, and as soon as I got done with that, at about 1:00 in the afternoon, I jumped in the fire truck and rounded up some guys, and we took off for the fire. We got there probably about 3:00, and we weren’t even a mile out of town, and we could see the smoke just drifting in the air. It looked like huge white storm clouds. We got up there, we drove around, tried to find roads to get to the fire, because it was horrible terrain. And by the time we were somewhere where we could get to it, we would have to leave because the wind would shift and the fire would get too big. So we walked around, doing what we could for a while, and then the fire chief and the county crew called us and said the fire was getting ready to jump the dirt road that connects Highway 163 to Ranch-to-Market Road 1024, so we all ran over there and tried to stop it. And next thing we know, it jumped. It was unbelievable how fast it was going. I was totally taken aback. I mean, I know fire can do what it wants, but I had never seen it do this before in my life.

After that we went and regrouped at a command center they had staged in this little gas station. Well, it was a gas station; it burned twenty years ago. One of the county commissioners brought us hamburgers. That was my first meal of the day, and a lot of guys’ first meals. From there, one of the ranchers in the area allowed us to go to his hunting lodge and take showers and rest for the night, because it was a good eighty-mile drive to town from the fire. So I was in line for my shower, lying in bed just relaxing—trying my best to relax. I had so much adrenaline. I was pumped up; I wasn’t ready to go to bed. And then the fire chief came in and said we all had to take off; the fire looked like it was getting ready to jump from the east side of 1024 to the west side of 1024.

We didn’t even know the fire was close to that area. About 11:00 we got there, and there was fire fifteen miles down the road. We kept running up and down that fifteen-mile stretch, fighting the fire, trying to keep it from jumping. We called more units from town to come out and help us. They got out there, and we kept fighting and fighting, and just when we thought we had it contained, it jumped and it took off and it just . . . it was amazing. We were all standing on the highway, and we were getting a bath of embers.

We slept in the trucks that night. We set up on the highway and angled our trucks to where we could watch the fire, and we reclined the seats and took turns taking little catnaps and power naps. But the smoke, you just couldn’t get away from it, so it wasn’t comfortable to sleep.

The fire was amazing to watch. I’ve seen California wildfires on TV, and that’s what it looked like. Only thing is, I was living it and not watching it on TV.

The Angelina River 
Bottom Fire, 
September 4–September 15

DANA DAY, 48, contractor. The fire had been burning for about three days already when I went into Alto to see what I could do. The firefighters were needing donations—drinks, lip balm, stuff like that—so I loaded up on a bunch of it and took it out to them. When I got there, I asked, “Is there any other way I can help?” And they said, “Yes!” So I met with the chief of the Rusk Fire Department, which was running lead on the fire—I counted at least ten different fire departments that were out there helping—and he said, “I’ll put you on a truck that needs some relief.” Some of those guys had been out there at least fourteen or sixteen hours, maybe longer.

I’d fought little fires on my own land, but I had never done any volunteer firefighting before, so I got a crash course real quick on how to run everything: “This is how you start the pump. This is what you do with the hose.” Then they put me on a small brush truck, and we went out to the edge of some pastures to watch for embers coming out of the woods. We were protecting several houses, including one that had a barn filled with gunpowder and propane. Another one was the home of my son’s Spanish teacher. We stopped about ten small fires in one pasture alone.

On my first day I was there from about 11:30 in the morning to about 11:30 that night. At about 5:00 that evening, we got a call saying, “We need all the trucks we can get out on Highway 21,” which had been blocked off. The fire had gotten to within about a half mile of the road. There’s probably 20,000 acres of bottom timberland on the other side, and if the fire jumped we’d never be able to control it because there’s no roads down there.

So we climbed into our truck and sped over. When we got there, we formed a line, with each truck about three hundred feet apart. We couldn’t see the fire, but we could hear it coming through the trees. You couldn’t see any flames or even smoke, but the roar of it, which was really a low rumble, was so ominous. We started to hear popping noises, and then, all of a sudden, we saw a few flames come up through a row of pines, and then a wall of fire shot up the trees. The heat got so bad so fast my skin was immediately hot to the touch. I didn’t know what to do. The chief shouted, “Nobody spray! Do not touch your foam!”

In that moment, with this wall of fire coming toward us, I thought, “Is this a good choice? Man, I want to help my community, but really?” I always thought that if you see a fire, you go put it out. You burn a pile of brush on your own land and you think, “That’s a big fire,” but you have no idea. With a fire this size, you have to let it eat what it wants. You don’t try to beat it, you try to control it. And that’s what I was having a hard time with.

We let the fire jump up those trees real quick, burn up the 
needles, come back to the ground, and get in the grass on the edge of the road, which acted as a firebreak and slowed it down. There were some spots where it did jump the road, but we were able to stop them. Before it was fully contained, it burned up seven thousand acres. It’s the largest fire that’s ever broken out in these parts.

A few days later, I was sitting at home watching TV when a friend of ours came flying into our house, saying, “Have you seen this?” I walked outside, and all I saw was smoke—big, billowing smoke. Another fire had broken out, just west of Alto. I think my actual words were, “Oh, shit, that’s right here!” Come to find out it was actually about five miles away, but my wife went to throwing things in the travel trailer. She asked what I was going to take, and I told her that I was going to load everything up and get her and the kids gone, but I was going to stay and protect the place. She couldn’t believe it. But I told her that if it got too hot, I’d just jump into our pond. One thing I’ve learned in life is water doesn’t burn.

THE BASTROP COUNTY 
COMPLEX FIRE, 
September 4–October 10

HENRY PERRY, 45, chief of the Bastrop Fire Department. There were actually three fires in Bastrop County. The first started about 2:15 p.m. [Sunday, September 4], just northeast of town, and destroyed a thousand houses in the first hour. The second started a little north of the first, at about 3, and began burning down toward it. The third started four hours later, to the west, in Tahitian Village—that’s the one that jumped the river.

I had guys on the scene of the first fire within three minutes. Three fourths of the department was there within fifteen minutes: four brush trucks, four tankers, two type-one engines, a dozer, and twenty men and women. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, only in training videos. There was nothing they could do. They got burned over several times. What that means is those eighty- or one-hundred-foot pine trees were on fire, and the tops burned over on top of the firefighters. It was raining fire down on them while the fire was exploding all around them. It sounded like a freight train. They thought the Southern Pacific was coming over the top of them.

I got on the radio and ordered everyone, “Get out! Go! Don’t try to fight it!” I told them to start evacuating all homes south of the fire. By that point the sheriff’s department had arrived, and I told dispatch to call EMS, the police, whoever they could find to help evacuate those people. There would be untold dead if those folks hadn’t come. They were heroic.

At one point that afternoon, we had two firemen get trapped between the first two fires, up on Cardinal Lane. They had gone to rescue someone in a house but turned in the wrong driveway. I was up in a helicopter and saw the second fire coming. It was like The Perfect Storm. I called them and told them to get out. They said, “No, we’re in a good spot.” I said, “Get out! There’s a second fire coming!” All of a sudden, we got a call from them: “Mayday! Mayday!” That means, “We’re trapped!” They were surrounded by fire, and their truck was stuck in the sand—that sugar sand we have around here—and they couldn’t get out.

So three of our guys got in one of the fire engines and drove toward them till they couldn’t see anymore because of the smoke. One got out and led the truck; both trucks were honking their horns, so they could locate each other. It was so hot that parts of their truck were starting to melt. Finally the three guys found them, and they all rocked the truck and got it unstuck. Those two are here today because those three went in and got them. They’re all volunteers, every one of them. It was their training that saved them.

The Texas Forest Service had warned us that Sunday and Monday would be terrible fire days because of the winds from the hurricane and the cold front. The winds were over 15 miles per hour, and the humidity was under 20 percent. Add in the drought and our fuels, which are horrible—pine trees and yaupon trees, they’re like gasoline. I hate cedar trees, they blow up. Then there’s the topography, like the canyons in Tahitian Village: fire burns twice as fast going uphill than on level ground.

We’ve been preaching for years that it’s gonna happen. I never dreamed we’d lose 35,000 acres. I figured we’d get a fire in Tahitian Village and stop it at the river. My biggest concern now is that it could happen again anytime. It could happen this afternoon. It doesn’t take much in terms of wind to get it going. The fire that jumped across Highway 71 was pushed by 10-mile-per-hour winds. If those first two fires had had a three- or four-degree change in direction, they could have burned the city of Bastrop. And if that wind had kept going as strong, the fire would have kept going. It could have gone all the way down to I-10.

Everybody was scared of wildfires before this, but they’re even more scared now. The danger is not going away. It’ll still be there in the spring.

SAVANNAH ZAMPANTI, 17, student, Bastrop High School. I left work early and went home to make sure everything was okay, check on my dogs. I was racing home. Called my mom. Called my dad. Halfway home, I was driving through black smoke. By that time I was like, “This is a lot more serious than I thought.” Traffic was backed up. Police were everywhere, ambulances, fire trucks. People were crying on the side of the road. I drove around a blockade, in the ditch; the police yelled at me, but they didn’t follow me in. I love my dogs.

I made it to my dad’s house, and I was running around like a chicken without a head. I didn’t know what to do, because I never evacuated before. I grabbed a suitcase full of clothes, sentimental things, grabbed our dogs. But I remember turning back and looking at my room, thinking, “This may be the last time I see my home.”

That night I stayed with my mom at her boyfriend’s house in Rockne. By the time it was dark, we could see the flames in Bastrop from the front porch. The wind was howling; we were scared. Overall, the worst feeling was not knowing what was gonna happen and if we still had a home. We heard rumors that we were gonna have to evacuate again.

By Tuesday, my mom, my mom’s boyfriend, and I, we were, like, we’re gonna try and get back into her house. She and her boyfriend had been able to water everything down outside the house before they evacuated. The police officer at the blockade basically turned his head so we could get by. The closer we got to home, the more intense things got. We saw animals that had been burnt. We saw a pony that couldn’t run away because his feet had foundered, and that was just heartbreaking. His hair had been singed off, and he was just in horrible shape.

There’s a corner that you turn right before my house, and I saw my neighbor’s house. It was gone. And then we saw our blue front door, and when I saw it, I just cried. The house was fine. But the fire had consumed our back pasture, our neighbors’ houses on either side of us, and half of our front yard. We believe our house didn’t burn because my mom and her boyfriend had stayed behind and watered.

We decided to stay because we were afraid of looters and a fire starting back up. We started collecting animals that we found. We found a golden retriever where her paws had been burnt. Animals kept piling in until Animal Rescue was able to get in and get them.

We couldn’t come and go because of the roadblocks, so we had to take a secret passageway, going down all these twisting roads. To get back in, I used my lifeguard shirt, because it has a red cross on it, to lie to police.

It was scary, because helicopters were flying everywhere. Propane tanks were going off, so it sounded like a war zone. I had my boyfriend show me how to shoot a pistol, because I knew how to shoot a rifle but a pistol’s quicker.

The looting was bad in our neighborhood. And, kid you not, the next day I was home alone—my mom and her boyfriend had left to get supplies—and two men and a woman pulled up, and I saw from my upstairs window what they were doing. They were looking around at our stuff in our yard. We have a back garage and a carport and everything, so they were digging through stuff and picking stuff up. So I went outside, and I had the holster on my hip and told them, “Y’all need to leave and get out of here now.” They saw that I had the gun, but I hadn’t drawn it yet, and a few unpleasant words were spoken. I said, “Y’all need to get your f—ing asses off my place.” And they were like, “Oh, you’re just a girl. You won’t do anything.” And I put my hand on the holster, unclipped the clasp, and told them, “Y’all need to leave. Now.”

It was like a movie. The guy made a step toward me, and at that point I drew the gun halfway out, because I really don’t want to shoot anybody—I really don’t—but I was prepared. And he was like, “Oh, do it.” And I was like, “Do you really want to test me? Do you really want me to shoot you between the eyes right now?”

I must have had a scary look on my face, because they got the picture and got back in their car and left. It was scary.

LORRAINE FLORES, 52, caretaker. I’ve been living in a trailer next to Miss Fredia for seven years. She had a big old house, and my little trailer was right next to it. This was right off Highway 21 East. I paid her $400 rent. I’ve been her caretaker for a while, and I also clean her house. Her and Mr. Egger, Miss Fredia’s husband, put me up for a while when I had two surgeries and I couldn’t work because I had to take care of my disabled son. And I worked and worked and worked to pay her back. I saw her every day, put her to bed every night. I would iron her clothes, and Miss Fredia is one of those women who keeps her place spic-and-span. Everything’s in its place. Before Mr. Egger died, in 2008, the last thing he said to me was “Take care of Miss Fredia.” So sure enough, I have to take care of Miss Fredia. She’s 91. And when people say, “You’re 
so good to Miss Fredia,” I tell people Miss Fredia was just as good to me.

I hadn’t seen Miss Fredia since August 18, when I had surgery on my right knee, because I was staying at home, getting well. On Sunday, September 4, I was planning on going to church, but for some reason I didn’t feel like going. Around 2:30 I went out for my walk. So I put my tennis shoes on and my shades and I grabbed my cane, and I go straight out my door and I start walking the opposite way of Miss Fredia’s, going toward a neighbor’s house, and I start feeling stuff falling on me. I couldn’t see it but I could feel it. I took off my glasses, and I see the stuff that’s falling is black.

And by that time I was already at the neighbor’s house, and I went knocking on his door, but he doesn’t answer. But his truck is outside. So I get off the porch and I start walking toward my house and I look back toward where Miss Fredia’s at and I see smoke. So with my cane I hobble myself as fast as I can to Miss Fredia, because my phone’s in my trailer but it has no minutes. I get to the door and ring her doorbell, and she’s all excited to see me. She’s all, “Oh, Lorraine! Come on in!” and I’m like, “Miss Fredia, we need to call 911 right away; there’s smoke all around us and stuff is falling on me.” So I go through her entryway and go through her dining room, through her little breakfast nook, and I get on with 911. And I’m like, “Uh, there’s smoke all around us. Are we supposed to be evacuating?” And all I hear from 911 is, “Well, ma’am, if you feel like you need to evacuate, you need to go ahead and do so.” And I was like, “Okayyy.”

As soon as I hung up, Miss Fredia is looking out her patio doors and goes, “Look, there’s a fire! It’s right there!” And the fire was already in her backyard. So I went outside to turn on her water pump, because I was gonna try and fight the fire. But I saw how big it was getting, and the propane is just a couple of feet away from the house. And so Miss Fredia says, “Run! Go get my purse!” So I go get Miss Fredia’s purse. I mean, I’m not even thinking about my knee. And by the time I get her walker, her purse, and her car keys, we go out into the garage and open the garage door, and there’s no way out. The driveway, the street, our mailboxes are engulfed in flames.

And she goes, “We ain’t gonna make it. We’re gonna burn up in this car!” And I said, “Okay, Miss Fredia, so that means we’re gonna have to book it!” So with her little walker, which has four wheels, we took off, over sand and logs and sticks and pinecones. It was hard. I’m pulling her and pushing her. I done thrown my cane away. I had to worry about Miss Fredia. That’s all I was worried about. I am pulling her and pushing her at the same time. And I’m trying not to hurt her. She’s a little bitty tiny thing, probably don’t even weigh a hundred pounds. And I’m so scared. I kept looking back and I kept telling her, “Miss Fredia, keep looking forward.” Because I didn’t need her to see that the fire was right on our backs and have a heart attack on me. The wind’s blowing, and embers are flying through the air. I could feel the heat and I could hear it. It was a loud crackling, right behind us. I cannot get the sound out of my ears to this day. That’s the only thing that I wish, that I could get that sound out of my ears.

So we go through Miss Fredia’s yard, and when we get to my yard, the wheels get stuck in the sand. They’re not rolling at all. And so I’m dragging the walker and dragging Miss Fredia to get away from this doggone fire. But I keep looking back, and her granddaughter’s camper, Miss Fredia’s house, it’s engulfed, and the fire is coming into my yard. By the time we get around my house and go over the little creek through the neighbor’s yard—the man whose door I knocked on—his truck was already gone. And so we go through his yard, and we finally get to the highway. Well, guess what? The police department had already closed our side of the highway. And I’m waving my hands for someone to see us, to stop and see us, and everybody is hauling ass on the other side of the highway to get away from the fire.

And so then we see a truck back up, and guess who it is? The neighbor guy. He has a white truck, and he works for the county. The guy just barely moved in at the end of July. All I know is, the guy’s name is Kevin. He had seen us on the highway with the walker, and that’s when he backs up and picks us up. So we all got in the truck. I looked back and saw everybody’s house burned. Every single house. Then I heard Miss Fredia’s car blow up: kapow! Then I heard my car explode.

We lost everything. My daughter’s cats all burned. All of her pets. And she’s such an animal lover, my Tiffany. All my son’s DJ equipment, his drums, all burned. He has absolutely nothing. And I lost my job with Miss Fredia, so I need to find a job. And so I got a lot on my plate right now, a lot to think about.

I saw Miss Fredia just last week. She came from Houston for a doctor’s appointment. We just couldn’t stop hugging each other. And we took pictures, because we have no pictures at all. Because every single thing I own I had on my back, and Miss Fredia too.

I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep—I replay everything in my mind. This really shook me up. I’ve never been like this in my whole life. I’ve never been scared to be by myself. This really shook me up.

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