four story pines

bastrop tx

four story

BASTROP, Texas – The four-story pine trees that once crowded her front lawn have been reduced to charred stumps, and her neighbors' homes down the road are blackened rubble.

  • By Erich Schlegel, Getty Images

    Hillary Polly looks through her family's belongings in the rubble of her burned house in a subdivision near Bastrop, Texas, on Sept. 7.


By Erich Schlegel, Getty Images

Hillary Polly looks through her family's belongings in the rubble of her burned house in a subdivision near Bastrop, Texas, on Sept. 7.

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Even so, Katherine Vermillion says she will rebuild in the same 2½-acre tract of wooded land where she has lived the past two decades and where a historic fire raged through seven months ago.

"Two years from now, this will be green again," says Vermillion, 64, a retired municipal worker living in a federally assigned trailer after the fire took her home. "It'll make it."

Residents of this town 30 miles east of Austin are in the slow, steady process of rebuilding homes and businesses in the wake of the Bastrop Complex Fire in September — even under the prospect that another fire could someday ravage the area.

The fire — actually three fires that converged in this area — was the costliest and most destructive blaze in Texas history and the third most destructive in the U.S., according to the Texas Forest Service. The fire devoured 32,400 acres and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes and businesses, forcing 5,000 residents to evacuate. The previous state record was set in April 2011, when a fire west of Dallas destroyed 168 homes, according to the agency.

"It certainly was the most destructive we've ever seen," says Tom Spencer, a department head with the Texas Forest Service. "The intensity, the spread, the size — all of that was very overpowering."

Texas firefighters have fought larger fires, but usually in the vast, unpopulated areas of West Texas, he says. Such a large, fast fire in a populated area such as Bastrop, home to thousands of tall pines that burn quickly in fires, created a uniquely dire situation, Spencer says. Texas lawmakers are considering rules that would regulate development in areas where fires are prevalent, he says.

"Whenever you have vegetation that will burn near where people live, it's a concern," Spencer says.

Sacrifice the trees

In Bastrop today, stretches of homes west of Bastrop State Park remain in clumped, charred ruins. Cars are abandoned and dusted with white ash.

Other nearby neighborhoods are busy with backhoes clearing out debris and construction crews raising wooden frames on new homes.

The home of Terry and Molly Tomlin burned to the ground, the fire consuming everything from the company Nissan to the couple's antique Coca-Cola memorabilia collection. On a recent afternoon, work crews were finishing completion of a new three-bedroom, two-bath home on the same site of the ruined one.

There was never a question to rebuild, Molly Tomlin says. One difference: They cleared all the trees from around the home which could be potential fuel for fires.

"We like the trees," she says. "Unfortunately we had to give that up."

By Eric Gay, AP

Homes destroyed by wildfire are seen Sept. 7 in Bastrop, Texas.

The September blaze cost $360 million in damage and generated nearly 2,000 insurance claims, says Mark Hanna, a spokesman with the Insurance Council of Texas, a trade association.

About 90% of the destroyed structures were insured, and the majority of those claims have been settled, he says.

Unlike recent hurricanes in Texas, where there's ongoing debate over whether the damage to a home was caused by floodwaters or wind, fire-destroyed homes are easier to pay out, Hanna says.

"With fire, there's no question: It was a wildfire that destroyed the home," he says.

As residents rebuild, city leaders are urging them to clear away branches and other debris in front of homes that may fuel a repeat fire, Bastrop Mayor Terry Orr says.

Most residents are returning, but none wants to see a repeat of September, he says. Residents lost wedding albums, children's photos, and other items insurance companies can't replace, he says. "It burned up peoples' money, burned up their lives, burned up their memories," Orr says. "It was devastating."

'Couldn't even cry'

The fire ignited on the afternoon of Sept. 4 as thousands settled into a sunny Labor Dayweekend, says Karen Ridenour, a specialist with the Texas Forest Service who is compiling a case study on the fire. One of the worst droughts in state history and winds from nearby Tropical Storm Lee in the Gulf of Mexico combined to create dangerous fire conditions, she says.

The blaze, believed to have started when downed trees snapped a power line, created a 16-mile-long front line and galloped at 5 miles per hour, speeding through treetops and jumping state roads, Ridenour says. It took 250 firefighters from around the country and 160 firetrucks and other equipment three days to contain the fire, she says. As the fires approached, teams of local law enforcement officers went house-to-house urging residents to flee.

"It was so devastating, my wife and I couldn't even cry," said John Chopcinski, 58, who evacuated with only a bag of blood pressure medication and a change of clothes. He returned to find his home and belongings a charred ruin. "We just sat there in awe."

States such as California have building codes, known as Wildfire Urban Interface Codes, that impose safety standards and restrict development in fire-prone areas, Ridenour says. Similar codes in Texas could help prevent a repeat of the Bastrop blaze, she says. "As long as we don't have codes like that, we're going to continue to see these fires."

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