Texas wildfires leave survivors with little but gratitude to be alive

Texas wildfires that spread across Bastrop County this week have forced many residents into shelters, where they recount narrow escapes and retain an enduring hope for the future.

Mark Clayton/The Christian Science Monitor
Raquel Herrera and Jeffrey Auckland stand at the Bastrop Middle School, in Bastrop, Texas, which has been turned into a shelter for residents forced to evacuate their homes because of the Texas wildfires.

“Pray for rain” reads the sign at a fast food restaurant on the highway six miles west of Bastrop, Texas.

“We love you Bastrop,” says another sign just a few miles from the tiny Texas town at the center of the area that is now considered the hardest hit by historic wildfires in the state.

Since December, some 21,000 Texas wildfires have burned 3.6 million acres and more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 800 homes since Sunday. At its peak, a 14-mile-wide fire burned across Bastrop County, 25 miles east of Austin. The Bastrop fire now ranks as the single most destructive in Texas history.

State officials are looking to federal authorities for help. President Obama on Wednesday told Gov. Rick Perry federal authorities would act swiftly on the state's requests for aid. But in Bastrop, many people are just beginning to sort through changes in their lives that they cannot yet fully comprehend.

Acrid gray and brown smoke hung on the horizon Wednesday from a fire that, in recent days, has swept through numerous housing developments and is still only 30 percent under control. Tropical storm Lee brought no rain, but its winds fanned the flames into a curtain of fire that roared through the area, gobbling up drought-stricken trees, shrubs, and homes.

All that is left for many are a few possessions, some pets, and family members. Two people have been reported killed by the Bastrop area fire. Survivors who outraced the flames ponder their future.

Saving Chunk and Grommit

Raquel Herrera sits, holding her husband Jeffrey Auckland's hand across a cafeteria table at the Bastrop Middle School. The school has been converted into a makeshift shelter to help thousands of suddenly homeless residents like her. Thankfully, a neighbor phoned Sunday afternoon to warn Ms. Herrera that a fast-moving wall of flame was just on the other side of the ridge from her subdivision – and headed straight for it, she says.

“I went outside after she called and looked up and the sky was still clear, but I noticed that two of my neighbors were packing up their cars and throwing stuff into it,” she says, her eyes moist. “I realized right away that I had better go too.”

Grabbing her 4-year-old son, Herrera put him in the car then phoned her husband at work as she grabbed clothes, important documents, and family pets – four dogs, two cats. After picking up her husband, they decided to race back and pick up their two big snakes as well, a python and a boa constrictor.

“I couldn't leave Chunk and Grommit there,” Mr. Auckland says. But on the return trip they also met a sheriff's deputy who told them they had to leave immediately, because the fire was fast approaching. They never saw the flames but did as ordered.

Now, four days later, the pair still don't know if their home is standing, but the development, Tahitian Village, was reportedly hit hard. Auckland says reliable information is hard to come by, and they still aren't allowed to go to see if their home survived. It's made him frustrated since it seems to him – and others – that Bastrop's volunteers shouldered most of the load but were hopelessly outmatched by the fire until Tuesday. By then, most of the damage was done, he said.

“I don't think they [state authorities] realized quickly enough the scope of the situation out here,” he says, “How many homes we have out here? We're not just rural anymore.”

Still, the pair say they are grateful for the neighbor who warned them and to have gotten out safely with their family and pets – the two snakes now boarding at a reptile store in Austin.

“We're all safe,” Herrera says. “We'll start over. God will provide.”

The couple say they aren't seeking any donated clothing or food at the middle school shelter, even though they could probably use some. They just want information, which seems in short supply.

“We know there are people a lot less fortunate than us,” Auckland says. “We have what we need. My kids are safe. My albums are safe. We've still got two jobs to get to each day.”

A somber reunion

While television lights blazed at a press conference at the nearby community center, Red Cross workers along with police, city workers, and volunteers from several local churches tended to scores of displaced and homeless people. Some spread out donated clothing in piles outside the school in the baking Texas sun.

Victims sat on benches in the shade, talking to aid workers, or in the air conditioned cafeteria. In the shade of a covered walkway in the 90-degree heat – a break from the 100-plus degree days of the prior week – Rachael Kinsey and Jeromy Thompson were reunited. The friends had not seen each other in some time. Both say they have likely lost their homes.

“It's burnt,” Mr. Thompson says flatly. “That's it.”

“You could see the smoke and flames crackling. We got out of there just in time,” he adds.

“I haven't been able to find out about my home,” Ms. Kinsey says, “but when I left the fire was out of control and heading our direction."

Just as she and her relatives finished throwing a few belongings into their cars, a black cloud was pouring down the road. They roared away in the opposite direction and stayed the night with other relatives in nearby Smithville, but had to leave there, too, the next day as the fire approached.

Both Thompson, an unemployed mechanic, and Kinsey, now say they have no home, no jobs, and no money. They are wearing donated clothing that does not fit. They will sleep on cots at the middle school tonight. But they are alive. They both still know people and have relatives in the area. And after the fire dies and the rains finally come and something approaching normal begins to return to town, both say they expect good things to begin again.

“I'm broke,” Kinsey says, “I left my kids with friends so they wouldn't be too stressed out here. Technically, I have no where to go. But I'm grateful to be staying here for now. Things will get better.”

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