Return to Cinder
Desolation and despair in the wake of the Bastrop fires.
Nearly seven years ago, on a windy late-winter afternoon, a wildfire broke out halfway between Bastrop and Smithville. Though the unincorporated area where my family and I had lived for almost three decades took the worst of it, the only thing we lost was some sleep; the fire came within half a mile of our home before it was rebuffed by a horde of firefighters.
That fire was a teaser for the record-breaker in 2011, when our luck ran out. As Texas baked through the hottest and driest summer on record, an unprecedented number of wildfires ravaged the state. The Bastrop County Complex Fire was, by one measure, the worst, destroying nearly 1,700 homes, the single largest loss of habitation to wildfire in Texas history. Like most of our neighbors, we lost our home and many of the trees that we loved.
Within a day of seeing what a wall of fire could do to a beloved landscape and the house where my wife and I had expected to grow old, we decided to move to another, less vulnerable part of Bastrop County. My friend Walter Winslett and his family also moved, to nearby Smithville. But he didn’t abandon our old neighborhood; he returned to his land and rebuilt the workshop where he sculpts and makes pine furniture. “I didn’t want to sell a property that’s been in my family since my dad bought it when I was a kid,” he says. “I hope to live long enough to see the forest come back.”
Walter rebuilt his workshop with fire in mind. The rectangular building has a metal corrugated roof and is sheathed with pale-yellow fire-resistant siding. A firebreak made up of soil dumped on top of rubble from the previous fire—seared stones and rocks glazed with melted ash—surrounds it.
Though he’d taken steps to be prepared, he couldn’t quite believe it when another conflagration, eventually named the Hidden Pines Fire, sprang up on October 13 and made its way to his property two days later. “I imagined losing it all,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could take it.”
Walter evacuated but not before seeing something terrifying from one of his workshop’s roll-up doors. “Angry smoke changed from deep black to whiter and whiter. It was so reminiscent of the last two fires, with the trees going up like Roman candles.” After two tense nights in Smithville, he learned that his workshop had survived without any damage.
When he returned to his property on the morning of October 17, he passed a group of firefighters braising in their own perspiration, putting out hot spots and building berms to protect the newly cut firebreaks from erosion. “I used to be a firefighter, so I know what it’s like to do this all night long, standing guard over a house, not leaving until it’s all under control. I had an incredible feeling of tiredness on their behalf. They were totally dirty at eight a.m.”
Since then, his relief at his own good fortune has been tempered by sadness over his neighbors’ ruined homes and the incinerated forest. Of the nearly three dozen mature pines on Walter’s property that survived the 2011 conflagration, only a third are still alive. Enough young saplings had sprouted up in the past few years that they had begun blocking his view of a neighbor’s place, allowing for a little privacy. But now most of them are dead or dying too.
The renewed devastation of the local ecosystem may be the hardest thing to deal with for those who remain. The 2011 fire all but destroyed Bastrop State Park, a 6,600-acre area that once was full of hikers, campers, and birders. For the past four years, invasive species have taken over much of the understory while the loblolly pine remnants have degraded to pale, limbless stalks. Until recently, anyone looking to take a hike through the pines still had one option, the eastern flank of the Lost Pines, which ends at Buescher State Park. But the Hidden Pines Fire finished what its predecessor had begun, leaving a stretch of desolation. When some much-needed rain arrived in late October, it fell on naked and defenseless soil.