The people who lived near us weren't especially close. Most of us had moved there for the seclusion. But the fire brought us together.
Way out here they have a name, for rain and wind and fire. The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe, and they call the wind Mariah. – Paint Your Wagon
Sunday, September 4, 2011
If you live in Texas, you know that Tess hasn’t been here for a while and you never want Joe or Mariah to come calling.
Unfortunately, they both did on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Scott and I were sitting at the kitchen table at the house on the Kilgore College Farm, where Scott is farm manager. I was trying to decide just how much longer I could put off grading papers, and he was taking a well-deserved break after moving the irrigation system around. The wind was so bad that it was blowing the water off target, so he had to go out and wrangle it, compensating for the wind.
Then the call came in. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon.
As I watched him take the call, I knew something very wrong was happening. He said very little but eyes betrayed him. Concern and panic washed across his face, replaced by a steely-eyed look that meant, whatever it was he had learned, immediate action must to be taken.
He got off the phone, stood up, grabbed his keys and headed for the door.
“There’s a big fire on Rose Wady,” Scott said. Rose Wady is our homeplace, where we built our house and lived before we came to the Kilgore farm.
“What do you mean a big fire?”
“Lincoln Springs and Rose Wady are burning down. I need to get out there.”
“Don’t. They probably have the area locked down. The property is insured. Please don’t go.”
“I’ve got to.”
For some reason I remained perfectly calm. The last thing I wanted was for my husband to go into a rampaging fire, but I knew I couldn’t stop him.
“I’ll check the news and see if there’s anything on about it,” I said.
“I’ll call you when I get there.”
After he left, I paced around the house. I wasn’t so calm after all. I was desperately worried, not about the property and the house, but about my husband. I checked the local news. There was nothing about the fire.
The call had come in from our neighbor who was coming back from First Monday Trade Days in Canton. They had gotten a call from a friend on the Gladewater VFD. Like my husband, they were racing to see what was left of their home. My neighbor has a lot of dogs (not to mention cats and birds) and she was hoping to get there in time enough to evacuate them.
I posted to FaceBook what was happening and sent a text to a friend who also had property near us, hoping she would get it. At this point, since the local news wasn’t covering the fire, and I couldn’t count on her watching the TV anyway, social media seemed the way to go.
Time passed. At about 3:30 Scott called.
“The house is gone,” he said. “Our hay is gone. Everything is gone. The forest is on fire. Everything is burning. I watched a house burn — it only took minutes. The fence posts are on fire. I’ve got to get out of here. It’s like Mordor.”
I listened, unbelieving.
“Get out,” I said. “Get out now. You can’t do anything.”
“Be home soon.”
I hung up and a thousand things went through my mind. Insurance, insurance, we need to open a claim, now.
I dug out our homeowner’s policy and called the 800 number. After navigating through multiple menus, I finally got a person and started the process. He asked me a lot of questions about the property, verifying the details of our policy.
Then he asked, “And when did this fire happen?” I paused and replied, “Honey, the fence posts are still burning.”
He didn’t know what to say. We talked about wildfires and brush fires. He was in Colorado and knew wildfires. I started to cry. I told him how my parents had given us the property, how we had developed it from the ground up, every nail, every fence post we had put there by hand.
This complete stranger responded with compassion and comfort. He told me about his grandfather’s ranch burning in a wildfire. He understood. He told me what to expect when I first got out there to look at the property, how shocking it would be. But it would be okay he said, really, we would be taken care of. I pulled myself together, wrote down the appropriate information, thanked him profusely for his kindness and hung up.
When Scott got home his face was covered with soot and ash and his eyes were as big as dinner plates. He told me when he got to the area it was blocked off by highway patrol. A sympathetic trooper let him through when he explained he was a homeowner.
They never should have let him in. The trees on both sides of the road were on fire and firebrands were flying through air, driven by the wind. Homes were burning, trees and tree limbs were falling into the road. The smoke was so thick he couldn’t breathe, or see beyond ten feet. He pulled up in our driveway and surveyed the damage.
The ground under the truck was smoking. The wisteria along the fence was burning. Flames shot up and changed color as they burned structures. Water was shooting out of the ground where lines had burned and melted. Because of all the water “leaks” the fire hydrant across the road from our house was unusable. Trucks were hauling water in. Helicopters hovered in the air dropping water.
He shut the water off, got back in the truck and got out.
There was nothing else he could do.
It took about three days for the fire, which had been christened the “Moore Fire,” to be contained.
Understand that contained doesn’t mean put out. Within a few days they had 60% containment. Over the next week the fire was slowly put out, or rather burned itself out within its perimeter. In total, it burned about 3,000 acres.
It had crossed two state highways and a network of smaller roads with the help of the wind. Two people, a neighbor and her infant, had died. Unfortunately, those deaths got our little corner of the world national news coverage. Now the media was interested. The networks came in and interviewed the remaining neighbors, whose homes had not burned. They wanted a human-interest story about a close-knit community.
In truth, the area really wasn’t that close-knit. Sure, we had all lived there a long time, but the houses were about 2 acres apart, and most of us lived out there to get away from “close-knit.” You knew who lived around you, your immediate neighbors (especially if you shared a fence), but mostly you knew who lived where by the names on the mailboxes.
After they opened the area back up to residents, we got in to review the damage. Things were still smoking. The roots of trees were still burning underground, putting up streams of smoke and the occasional flame. The wind was still blowing ash and firebrands around and every now and then, a new fire would pop up. No one got too excited because there really wasn’t anything left to burn. Neighbors congregated in what was left of front yards. People who had never talked now had something in common. The name on the mailbox became the person crying in your arms. It had taken a fire to create that close-knit community the world wanted to see.
Over the next week fires burned all over East Texas driven by the dry conditions and high winds. I drive 60 miles to work every day and over the next few days, I drove through heavy smoke.
The first morning after our fire, I thought I was encountering heavy fog. It wasn’t. I thought I was handling things pretty well though. My eyes were dry and itchy from the smoke and watered. I noticed they were worse than usual. Then I realized I was crying.
Time to Move On
Many of our neighbors had insurance and the adjusters got to the scene pretty quickly.
Claims have been filed, checks have been issued, and people are starting to try to put their lives back together, but it’s slow going. Land speculators, along with gawkers, are a common sight. Fire looters are showing up at night to steal what they can from burned out property. People are already getting offers for their property, “as is.”
I don’t know how many will rebuild, I know some will, but I also know some won’t. We got a settlement from the insurance company for the house, other structures and contents. We have to get all our documents together to visit with our CPA to find out if the settlements are taxable if we don’t rebuild. FEMA is trying to contact all property owners to find out what kind of help we need, if any.
The Fire Marshall is still investigating the two deaths. I have learned more about the operations of local VFDs than I ever wanted to know — some things I have learned I wish I didn’t. I wish I didn’t know what “containment” means. I wish I didn’t know how perimeters are established.
I wish I didn’t. I hope I forget.
We have decided not to rebuild at the old homeplace at Rose Wady as we are developing another home site on 10 acres in another location. We don’t know what we are going to do with the Rose Wady property; a lot depends on what our CPA tells us. I really don’t want to sell it since it was a gift from my parents and they are both gone now, but maybe I should. Maybe I should turn loose of that last link and get on with my life.
Fire has a funny way of forcing you into the present. My husband said it reminds us of the “impermanence” of life. It burns away the artifacts of nostalgia and forces you into the here and now. You can’t reassemble the souvenirs of your past from ash. You have to move on, whether you like it or not.
Fire is a harsh mistress.