Wednesday, February 1, 2012

After The Fire; or - How The Chihuahua Was Spared

Last week, my friend Sandy sent me an email:

“Dan, do you want to come with me to Bastrop? I’m going to shoot some pictures of the ruins.”

Sandy is a photographer who documents disasters, and since Bastrop just suffered the most destructive wildfire in Texas history- a raging inferno laid waste to 1,600 houses and 34,000 acres of land - he was keen to record the aftermath for posterity. As for me, I had never witnessed the effects of Biblical hellfire before, so I was curious. I agreed to go.

Bastrop is a heavily wooded area, but as we approached the town the green trees turned to tall, dead pillars of carbon stuck in the scorched soil. Turning down a road, we found ourselves in a mostly destroyed housing development located inside the ravaged forest.

It was a strange, surreal environment. Outdoor swimming pools and kid’s playgrounds had survived even as the homes they were attached to were reduced to mounds of abused metal, broken brick and ash. The flames had randomly skipped certain homes, while destroying others. Fireplaces and washing machines rose from the ashes, seemingly indestructible. There were few birds, and no woodland creatures. The deer and rabbits and armadillos had all been massacred by Mother Nature. 

We stopped the car to walk around a weird complex of ruined outbuildings, ideal for storing car parts and/or sex slaves. The owner had left out cat food in the hope that his pet would return. I found it across the street, jammed in a pipe, surrounded by a halo of flies. It had died trying to escape the fire, which had not even singed its fur.

A young woman came out to talk to us. The flames had passed over her attractive two-storey house, only to destroy the home of the newly wed couple next door. They had lost everything, including priceless family heirlooms. ‘Do you feel guilty that your house survived?’ I asked. ‘Very,’ she replied, and two minutes later showed me a picture on her iPhone of a melted lamp-post two miles down the road. ‘Pretty cool, huh? I mean, it’s sad too, but…‘

Next we stumbled upon a man retrieving the copper from the rubble of his home before thieves sold it to buy meth. A burly Texas Viking, he had already hung up bird feeders as a sign that he was back. He had stayed until the flames were roaring down the street towards him, and was annoyed that the insurance agency hadn’t given him his money yet: ‘I can’t believe we’re not already rebuilding.’ He pointed at the green shoots rising from the black earth. ‘See? The forest is already coming back. I’m not going anywhere, nobody is. Everybody in this neighborhood will rebuild their homes.’

And so we continued, roaming through a landscape of wreckage at once immense and overwhelming. Everywhere, life was resuming - construction teams zipped past, helicopters buzzed overhead, and all manner of builders and constructors had put up signs advertising their services. Some houses still had evacuation notices stuck to their mail boxes; at others there were hand-written messages nailed to the trees warning trespassers that they would be shot. Then, in a poorer neighborhood I stumbled upon a house where somebody had covered what little wall that remained with the spray-painted message:


Ironic? I wondered. Nah… this is Texas. And just as I was taking a picture, a woman holding a portable oxygen tank rushed towards me. Her name was Cindy Cruz, and this was her house.  ‘I tagged it,’ she said with a smile. She had written other messages, spitting defiance at Satan, but those parts of the house had since collapsed. She too had been present when the fires came rushing down the street, and had only had time to grab her laptop, a few knick-knacks and her pet Chihuahua, Dillinger. 

‘Think about it,’ she said. ‘Only two people died- that’s why I wrote “How great is our God!” because it could have been so much worse.’ She had turned down an emergency trailer from the federal government- like many Texans she doesn’t want a handout, only to get on with the rebuilding.

I asked if anything had survived the fire. ‘Not much,’ she said, her lips slowly forming a smile. ‘Only… when my husband came back the first time, he found the urn containing the ashes of our first Chihuahua- Duke. It was cracked, but the ashes were still in there, they hadn’t spilled out. So he poured Duke into a plastic bag and drove away. Later I brought the bag to the funeral home. They remembered me, and gave me a new urn for free. So in spite of the fire I still have two of my beloved Chihuahuas! See? We won!’

We got in the car, and drove on.    

To see images from the fire’s aftermath, click here.