FROM CHAPTER 1:
September 6, 2011, 6 a.m. It was still dark when I gave up on the nearly worthless sleep that finally came to me an hour or two earlier. As I put my feet on the floor, my head throbbed, my neck was stiff, and my stomach felt acidy and tight. During the middle-of-the-night hours that I stared at the low motel ceiling or fidgeted on the bed, I had won and lost a dozen debates with myself about whether our home and property had escaped again.
Enough was enough. I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to go back one more time, even though the fire continued to rage and grim-faced law enforcement officers were ready to thwart me at every entry point.
After I put the toilet seat back down—the reflex of a man who lives only with females—I caught a glimpse of myself in the small, rectangular mirror over the bathroom sink. The half-moon flesh under my bloodshot eyes was wrinkled and loose. My hair was unpresentable, not that I cared.
I tried to slip out without waking my wife, Holly, or my youngest daughter and birthday girl, Miranda, who were sleeping side by side on the other bed. But my bed squeaked as I sat on its edge to lace up my tennis shoes, and Holly lifted up her head, her voice quiet and scratchy.
Her objections didn’t work. I was too determined and she was too groggy. A minute later, I was walking across the overflowing parking lot. It was very dark except in the east, where a thin wash of light painted the sky dark gray.
My business was urgent. But I stopped at an overlook several hundred feet above the highway. I needed to know if I was about to drive into the fire’s maw. The last time I was here—early afternoon the previous day—cars and pickups were parked at cockeyed angles. The conversations I joined or overheard at that time over the wind’s moan were a mixture of resignation and threadbare hope. Nobody knew for sure what was happening on the ground, but there were a lot of theories.
I was certain some of my overlook companions were already wiped out, like my friends at the motel, or about to be. Others would be fine by the time it was all over. I couldn’t imagine how the lucky, including me, would fight back their guilt, or the unlucky their anger and bitterness.
From our vantage point, the fire took on two forms. The main one was a vast and heaving cloud of smoke towering many thousands of feet above us. It filled our entire western and southern visual horizon. While it was mainly white, there were dark streaks and blotches in it and lighter spots where the blue sky behind it was almost visible.
The other form was a yellow curtain of flame hanging and writhing over the ground. Within it, sharp bursts of light appeared and almost immediately vanished. Each one was like a tweet from the fire informing us that another home had been claimed and the secure future of another family forfeited.
While we were a small community of collective ignorance, there was one thing we knew: this fire was vastly more dangerous and destructive than the one two and a half years earlier that took three helicopters, two airplanes, and twenty-two fire departments to contain.
Labor Day 2011 was the first day of a new era in Bastrop County, one in which its most prominent and beloved feature—the Lost Pines—would be ugly and desolate for many years. For those of us in middle age or beyond, our deaths would precede the rejuvenation of the forest into the bounty of life it was when we built our homes and started our families.
Eighteen hours later, with dawn breaking, I was alone at the overlook. Perhaps I was the only person sneaky or defiant enough to go where the highway patrol and sheriff’s office insisted I shouldn’t. Or maybe my fellow scofflaws were just getting dressed and plotting their way in.
Just as the weather forecasters had predicted, the hysterical wind had died down overnight. A mild breeze made the 80-degree temperature pleasant, almost balmy. I leaned against one of the large circular wooden barriers at the edge of the bluff and stared at the fire.
Low, clean eastern light illuminated the smoke cloud, giving it an ethereal, almost hypnotic quality. It was beautiful and humbling.
But it was also awful and confounding. As a matter of science, the fire was easily explained: a record-breaking drought, tropical-force winds, and decades of fuel untouched by the natural fire events that keep a forest healthy. But physics and biology couldn’t explain why the rules of normal life could be repealed in such an arbitrary and irrevocable way. Or why so many loblolly pines at the zenith of their slender elegance had to come to such a terrible end.
My eyes followed the line of the highway into the pale, yellowish, billowing wall. There were no more flares, perhaps because there were no more structures left in the neighborhoods west and south of mine.
While the fire was far from contained, the entire scene felt like the last stages of a great battle, the smoke signifying immense destruction and a future reckoning of sorrow and despair. I was heartbroken for the forest and sad for the friends and acquaintances that were already starting to hunker down in the face of a bleak future. But I didn’t count myself among them. I had won the nighttime debate with myself because there was clear sky in the direction of my home, trees, and land. In less than a quarter hour, I would confirm what my gut already knew.
Suddenly I noticed a man standing in the middle of the road, facing me. I didn’t recognize him. He was calm and almost smiling.
“Morning,” he said.
“Howdy,” I said. “Where are you coming from?”
“Down the park road a bit.”
“I was just getting ready to go that way myself. Any reason I shouldn’t?”
“So it’s safe?” I asked.
“You’re looking at me, aren’t you?”
I described where I lived. “You know where I’m talking about?”
“Well, how does it look?”