Thursday, September 08, 2011

Down to the Last Nerve

Five days since I ran away from the fire and smoke. Five days of sitting by the television waiting and hoping for the announcement that the fire was under control. Five days of bad, bad news and horrible photos of the now devastated area that I call home. Five days of wondering if I still had a home. Five days of scanning Facebook feeds and watching press conferences. Five awful, horrible, nerve-wracking days.

Five days later the fire still burns. Progress has been made, but the fire still burns.

Yesterday the reports began to be posted that gave me hope that I was one of the lucky ones. The officials were being very cautious about specifics, but they did confirm that the western part of the subdivision had mostly escaped the ravenous flames. This morning a series of aerial photos allowed us to pinpoint my neighborhood and see for ourselves that there was no sign of fire damage. Late today, the barricades were moved further into the subdivision and some residents were allowed to re-enter. My street was included in the re-entry area.

After five days, I allowed myself to take a deep breath and relax just a tiny, tiny bit. David and I will drive down in the morning and check on my house.

I read a Facebook post this evening from a lady who had discovered that not only did she still have a house, she actually had power and water. Her family is preparing to spend their first night back - and she's scared. Scared because the fire still rages a short distance away and a shift in the weather could call for them to evacuate again.

It is hard to describe the conflicting emotions - joy that you have not lost your possessions and your home; despair at the horrible losses that have been suffered by your neighbors a few miles away; dread that the danger has not been totally removed; fear that you will never ever feel safe again.

I feel like I've been kicked in the gut. The disaster at the top of the news hour is personal this time. Thank God for the firefighters. Thank God for the law officers and the emergency management team and the volunteers who worked to shelter the evacuees who did not have anywhere else they could ride out the storm. Thank God for the folks who took along their neighbor's dogs who were at home alone and the animal rescue folks who removed the animals at the local shelter to a safe location. Thank God for the friends and relatives who have offered shelter and support and have prayed unceasingly for the deliverance of this community from the jaws of Hell.

May we all pull out of this nightmare soon.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Hell Hath no Fury

The relentless heat and drought of this summer has kept me on pins and needles, worried about the possibility of fire. Ever since I moved into the pine forest subdivision outside Bastrop, I've fussed about fireworks, cursed smokers who tossed their butts in the edge of my yard, and shaken my fist at the drivers who drag their trailers with the chains dancing merrily on the pavement, shooting sparks in every direction.

Sunday afternoon my worst fears were realized.

I had been enjoying my 3-day weekend. I spent Saturday cleaning the house so I could spend the rest of my holiday doing whatever my heart desired. Sunday morning I was working on genealogy updates when I got the idea to go over to Smithville for lunch. I had an ulterior motive in that plan. I had spied some little things in an antique store between Bastrop and Smithville that I decided I should probably go ahead and buy. I headed out, assuring the dogs I would be right back.

I had not even reached the end of the street when my tire light came on. I have ongoing issues with the tires on Big Red and this is usually the first sign that I am about to have to replace another tire. Fearing that I might have to change a flat when I left the restaurant, I decided I would just stop at the convenience store and pick up a few things, then go back home and have another bowl of the sausage and bean soup I had made the night before.

As soon as I pulled back into the garage, I got my tire gauge and checked all the tires. None of them showed any real pressure problems. A couple were only a mark or two off where they should be. Having nothing but a bicycle pump at hand, I used it to inflate the tires back to the proper place. All of them checked out just fine. I started the car. The tire pressure light came on.

Blast and heck. I went on and had my lunch and watched some tv and worked on some genealogy notebooks. In about an hour I went back and checked the tire pressure again. Still fine. Still the light was on. I decided to sit tight and go to the tire dealer first thing on Monday morning.

I was beginning to become aware of a blue cloud just over the treetops. I knew there was no rain in the forecast, but I also know better than to trust forecasts, so I turned on the weather to see if there was any word about rain in Bastrop. Nothing. I think it was then that it occurred to me that maybe that blue cloud was smoke. I began to look for news bulletins and couldn't find anything about a fire. About that time Lana called me to ask if I was getting ready to evacuate. She was watching the only station that was issuing a crawl across the bottom about a fire in Bastrop County.

Mild panic set in. I loaded the dog and cat carriers into the car - just in case - threw some clothes into a suitcase - just in case - took two grocery bags to the trunk that holds a collection of family memorabilia and filled them with photo albums, diplomas, and assorted other family treasures that were small enough to pack into the two bags - just in case. I opened the garage door, thinking that if the electricity were to go out, I might not be able to do that later. I was loading my various bags and baggage and stepped out to glance down the street. The police were making their way toward me, knocking on doors. I went into high gear.

I cornered cats and got them into areas that I could be sure I would be able to get hold of them quickly. I finished packing my suitcase, filled another grocery bag full of dog and cat food. Then came the knock on the door. The lady officer told me I should get moving out of the subdivision as quickly as I could and to leave by the back exit. I immediately began stuffing cats into carriers and loading the last of the bags I had packed. The last thing I did was to take down the oval portraits of my grandmother and great-grandfather, the oil painting of my mother, and a few other framed pictures and load them, along with my computer case. The dogs were aware that something was up and readily allowed me to zip them into their carriers.

I walked through the house looking for anything that I felt I just had to take with me. Finally, I locked the door, stepped out of the garage, waved to my neighbors, and we all started moving down the road.

The tire light was still on, but I told myself I would just have to take my chances. It occurred to me that I had forgotten the dog leashes, so I made a U-turn, ran back into the house and got those and rejoined the line of cars making the exodus. I was at the end of the street and turning right onto the road that would lead me out of the subdivision - and the tire light switched off.

At one point in our slow, crawling process out to the main highway, we made a turn and came face to face with the billowing clouds of smoke. At that point, I think my mind went numb.

My remaining thought was to head to Austin to David's house, but I wasn't 100% sure I would be able to get in and they were out of town for another night. I stopped for gas and a cold drink once I had gotten well on my way and my aunt called about that time to see where I was. We decided it would better for me to go to their house in Dripping Springs for the night. When you are hauling along 5 critters, you don't turn down offers to house you. I angled around Austin and headed to Dripping Springs.

A perfect storm of extreme drought conditions, high winds and a spark from an unknown source grew rapidly to a hellish fire that has consumed a very big chunk of the county where I have lived for almost 40 years. My subdivision has been decimated, the State Park across the highway from the subdivision has been almost totally burned, and numerous other outlying subdivisions have been wiped out. The fire continues to push southward, eating up huge amounts of acreage. Other fires were breaking out all over Central Texas. It has been Hell in Texas for the past 48 hours, with no end in sight.

Thankfully the wind is no longer gusting and the temperatures have dropped. Some of the smaller fires have been brought into some semblance of control. But the Bastrop County fire rages on. We evacuees are holding onto our iPhones like lifelines, reading the updates being posted by the Emergency Services folks. Facebook has been a really useful tool during this period of horror, although it has fed the horror some as you read posts from people who have learned they no longer have a house to go home to.

I and my little brood are now safe and sound at David's house. We are waiting, hoping for a miracle that will let the firefighters get the upper hand in this battle. We have no idea how our house has fared. I remember various things that I overlooked in my mad rush that certainly qualified to be included in the family treasures I brought with me and I grieve that they may have been lost. I am grateful that I was able to bring out as many things as I did. Some folks had so little warning that they were barely able to bring out more than the clothes on their backs.

Hell on Earth. I know what that means now. I also know that I am lucky that I am safe and well, my pets are safe and well, and that (most) things can be replaced. I have been comforted with a steady stream of calls and emails from family and friends from literally across the nation. Despite what I may ultimately have to deal with, I am blessed.

And that tire light? Hasn't been on since. Laugh if you want, but I think my ancestors - and I fully expect it was my grandmothers with some help from my parents - did what they had to do to make sure I stuck around the house that day so I would be there to take care of business.