Burned Out Emotions
The fires in Texas during the summer of 2011 were devastating. During Labor Day weekend and the weeks following, over 2000 homes were destroyed. A very large majority of the damage occurred within thirty to sixty miles from my home. I was on stand-by for evacuation once and then two weeks later, evacuated from my home.
In mid-August, a fire started in the neighborhood next to ours. I was heading to a meeting in downtown Austin after work and noted the plume of smoke in my rear view mirror. My thoughts put the location near my home but I dismissed it as though it wasn´t possible. Not even ten minutes after I got to the meeting place ahead of schedule, I got a call. The neighborhood behind us was in flames and we were on-call for evacuation due to the high winds and super dry conditions. Shuffling my paperwork together, a hasty call to the meeting director, and running out of the door, I head back home; right into the heat of rush hour traffic. My heart rate must have been wild as I spent the next fifty minutes trying to get past the commuters, and then once closer to home, the gawkers, so I could secure my pets and what belongings I could grab. Thirty minutes is the time you are given when told to evacuate. Thirty minutes to decide what is important and what is not. Phone calls were made to friends a few streets over, to check on them. Then there were multiple calls to my partner discussing what course of action to take depending on who got home first. How do we keep the boys busy? What job to give our fourteen year old with Autism that would keep him busy, yet calm? It was the next to longest, next to most frustrating drive I´ve ever taken.
We were ready quickly, and realized, while we debated what else we had room for in our cars, that our neighbor was in a panic. Her husband was a high school football coach out on the field for practice with no knowledge of the fire and no way for her to get a hold of him. She had a look on her face I´ll never forget as she held their baby boy and tried to keep her six year old daughter calm. My troll collection lost meaning, (sorry guys), as I ran into her home to help her pack diapers, clothes and prescriptions. Where is the dog food? Where are my suitcases? I gave her daughter a black trash bag and told her to put her very most important toys and dolls in it. "Only what will fit, so be very careful." She took the task to heart and stayed busy for some time with it. The neighbor bursts out laughing from her daughters’ room. Seems she found the missing suitcase filled to overflowing with all the daughters clothing! "I was helping mommy”, she claimed innocently.
We watched the smoke from our driveways, and sometimes even the flames were high enough for us to see over the two story homes next to us. One minute I was so aggravated because of the photo op people clogging our streets, literally parking on the street behind my loaded cars ready to evacuate if told to do so. The next minute I went into the heart wrenching "what if". The helicopters flying overhead with the bags that dropped water on flames were so loud that conversation was not possible at times. I felt like I was in a war zone. Finally the police stopped the traffic flow into our neighborhood unless you owned a home. One more shift of the wind and we were to go. The house was stifling hot. It was August in Texas! The electricity had been cut a long time ago. Watering down the roof of our home seemed senseless, but it occupied our time. The kids and the pets were hungry. Good thing for peanut butter and cereal. No cooking necessary. Finally, three hours later, the flames under control, we were given an all clear. The homes lost in this blaze totalled fifteen, with additional properties damaged. We were safe. We unpacked our vehicles and bags. A decision we would regret less than two weeks later.
Labor Day weekend brings picnics, camping, fireworks, and end of the summer fun; unless you live in Texas, in 2011. On Sunday of that weekend we caught wind of a fire in Bastrop County on a face book news clip. We flipped on the TV to get more information. We were glued to the set for the next twenty four hours. Bastrop is about sixty miles away from us, but we have relatives that live close to the fire. We tried to call them, no service. Phone lines were down, cell service spotty. They managed a face book post to tell us they were ok but on stand-by for evacuation, with their cars packed, helping neighbors. Deja vu. I felt their anxiety, their fear, and most of all, the wish for it just to be done with. Neighborhood after neighborhood was being evacuated getting closer and closer to our relatives. Over one thousand homes evacuated, and more on standby.
Then not twenty miles away from us in another direction another fire broke out! This area had two roads for access, blocked on one entire side by hills and the Colorado River. All four thousand residents evacuated. Two more fires break out further away, but still within the fifty mile radius of Austin, Texas. These fires around Austin have the news and fire crews stretched thin. The call for help goes out. Bastrop needs a fire plane that is many states away and the pilots need a required government forced rest period. The residents there are angry, sad, tired, and hot. Most wondering what idiot makes a rule that keeps the only plane of its kind out of the air, not doing what it needs to be doing, at the moment it is needed.
The news media flipped from one fire to the next almost as quickly as the fires ripped from one neighborhood to the next. Trying to keep us abreast of what was going on where; I couldn´t get away from it. I needed to watch that map, and see if loved ones were going to have to go. They didn’t in the end, but so many more did. One after the other, we watched in dismay as the number of houses lost kept getting larger. Back and forth, residents got angrier as the media interviewed them. They wanted to know what was going on. Why couldn´t they get back to their homes? I´m screaming at the TV, “really!!! You don´t see all that black smoke? You want to go back in there? Are you stupid?” All the while I´m yelling, I also am feeling sadness for the loss.
Labor Day Monday morning brings more bad news. The fires have all grown. The damage was widespread. It was heart-breaking. In Bastrop County, the news showed the big map, and the fire people would list the next batch of confirmed homes lost. The owners cried, I cried with them. This day I had to go get my boys from their Dad. They had missed all this on their weekend with him. I literally watched the very last bit of news I could before I had to get in the car. To get them was a four hour, round trip drive. It turned into a seven hour nightmare.
Thirty minutes from our home we noticed black smoke in the sky. It is something I now notice from miles away! Only this wasn´t coming from the direction of any known fire we had been watching on TV. Our sitter called moments after we noticed, to tell us there was a fire in her neighborhood and she was being evacuated. She lived three streets away from us in another neighborhood. My heart flipped again. The pets are all I can think about. One illegal U-turn and we´re headed home. Watching the black plume the entire drive, it was a beacon home. My heart constricts, I felt it tightening in my chest. "Just let me get to the pets. Please." More driving and phone calls. The boys are safe with their dad. We´ll get them as soon as we can. This drive was the longest, most frustrating drive of my life.
The closer we get, the thicker traffic gets. I get so angry, I realize I´m taking turns at the wrong streets, in the wrong lane, and where in the hell did all this traffic come from? I´m livid at the sight seers. I´m yelling at my windshield, "People, I need to get home to my pets!” Roadblocks, accidents, state police, and people stopping the flow of traffic to take pictures. I´ve never been an ambulance chaser, and now that I´ve been through this, I´d like to give them a piece of my mind. Get out of where you don´t belong. The added traffic, accidents, and downright hold up of people like me just wanting to get home and salvage what we can of our lives, is not worth it. I was ready to leap from driver seat and run across an entire neighborhood to get my pets out.
When we finally did get home, I was amazed at how befuddled I was as to what to do. We just did this pack up less than two weeks ago! We had learned something. Opening the hall closet door, and taped to the inside was a list of things to grab, in order of importance. We realized after the first fire, that we thought about our one son´s medications for seizures way too late in the process. Then there was a knock on the door. Our neighbor had just gotten the reverse 911 call. We were to evacuate. Crap! I froze. Now what? “The list, just follow the list” was all I could tell myself. We got our stuff, and were pulling out into traffic twenty minutes later. Mind you, traffic is not what we normally have where we live! I called my sister in New Jersey on the way to my partner´s Dad´s home. We would spend the night with him after we made our trek to get the boys. I cried. I was angry. We just had our home built a year before. I was sad. I couldn´t get everything that was important. I was tired. Utterly, completely, fall over, what did you say?
We were kept out of our home twenty four hours before they let us back in. I spent the next day, watching the flare ups in neighborhood behind us, bags packed at the door, pet carriers ready. In truth, I was ready to be done with it. Burn my house down and let’s move on. I was actually in that frame of mind. The emotional roller coaster of stay, go, loss, gain, worry, relief, is a strain. Let it just be done. It wasn´t done for many weeks. The fire near us was ruled arson with a probable link to the one from two weeks earlier. Four teens wanted for questioning. They were never caught. There are still bags packed in the closest by the front door to this day. Fear based? Maybe. But I want clean underwear if this happens again. The drought in Texas is far from over. Fire is a constant probability.
The fires in Bastrop were 100% contained six weeks after they started. The fire was ruled accidental, started by a dead branch falling, hitting a power box, and sparking. Over 1500 homes lost in that one area. Miraculously, only two human lives lost. Eight homes lost in the neighborhood next to us and many, many more in the other fires. The acreage lost is incomprehensible. My anger at the gawkers and “ambulance chasers” has kept me out of the neighborhood next to us for a look see. It just isn’t fair to disturb what is left of the lives of those people to satisfy my curiosity. We drove through an area of Bastrop along the edge of the major damage, on our way somewhere else, not realizing we would actually see anything. It was quiet. That’s the weirdest thing about it. This drive was months after the fires and it just seemed quiet to me. Looking at houses completely burned down to the fireplace chimneys was eerie. Sometimes all that was left was a shell of a cook range or a washer and dryer. Sometimes an entire area would have no damage at all.
I really took to heart what is important in all of this. An accounting of everything you own. You can’t take it all with you, so deal with it. If it´s a loss, at least have your paperwork and photos to get the insurance money to replace “stuff” kept in a safe. Have a bag packed at the door or near it, with a weekend´s worth of clothes. And I cannot stress enough the importance of a list. I was shocked at how stupid my anal, organized, self was when the “get out” actually came to us.
The list is super easy. Write down a list of everything you can´t live without. Now, if you could have everything on the list but one thing, what would you drop? This starts the bottom of your list. Do it over and over. If you could have everything on the list but one thing, what would you drop? This is next from the bottom. Work your way up till you are out of everything you can´t live without. Check your list, make any adjustments, hang it by the front door. If you have to leave your home, follow the list till the officers say go, go, go. Trust me; none of what gets left behind is really that important, if you did the list. I´ll never live anywhere without one. I’ll never forget seeing the flames and the smoke curling under a house eave. I never want to feel such apathy for the roof over my head again. It is amazing, as I sit in the home I once wished would just burn, watch the kids that continue to grow, and curl on the couch with my cats, how much I am truly blessed and appreciate all I have. I never want to feel the way I did in August and September 2011 again. I hope you never have to either.