Kay Rogers has a Texas-sized sense of humor and, amazingly, it was still intact as she sat in the kitchen, drawing a map of the Bastrop fire and trying to explain the unimaginable:
“The fire started here and our farm is way down here, 12 miles away. It could have taken many paths but I swear it had its GPS set on my address.”
Indeed, it did – hers and hundreds of other addresses across Bastrop County, racing through those 12 miles in less than two hours. When the smoke appeared in her fields, Kay relied on her lawyer’s collected mind to make some fast decisions – moved the tractors and vehicles and equipment out into an open field, opened the gate for the cattle – and then time ran out and she was running, too, with just her dog and the clothes on her back.
Later that evening Kay called us. Erin and I had planned to have lunch with her on Tuesday in Bastrop to talk about the New Farm Institute. Kay is on the board and her knowledge and dedication to Austin and Bastrop is long and wide.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said.
For the past three days, that terrifying phrase has been repeated far too many times in Bastrop. As newcomers to the county who’ve been busy getting our River Farm up and going, we haven’t gotten to know many people here. The fire changed that.
As I watched clouds of smoke roiling in the distance, I found it hard to concentrate on farming. The former reporter in me wanted to get into the thick of it and tell people’s stories and inspire others to help. It didn’t seem right to be planting fields and building fences when farms like Kay’s were being laid to waste.
By Sunday afternoon I had to do something when my eye caught a fresh cloud of smoke to the South. It grew fast, black plumes billowing up as it devoured and spit out another home (see the video above). I hopped in my van and soon was caught up in the confusion and panic at the intersection of Highway 71 and FM 1209. Homeowners were pulling out hoses and watering their lawns. Others were packing up their pickups and getting ready to leave. Thick smoke slipped quietly though the thick underbrush as I helped a man hitch up a vintage Airstream his father left him.
Fire trucks raced down the dirt road, dust mixing with black smoke and fear. I wished him good luck and headed back to the relative safety of our farm.
Friends and family have been calling from around the country to see how we are. Suddenly, the little town of Bastrop is on the map, and now, tragically, it is a place seriously diminished. Its historic Lost Pines park is mostly gone and miles of countryside are scarred. Hundreds are homeless. Two people have died.
Central Texans will be talking about this wildfire for years to come: how the hottest summer on record went out in flames, how the misery and loss of a historical drought set the stage for an even worse fate, and how strangers helped strangers and friends drew closer to friends as hard times stretched across the horizon.