Editor’s Note: Randy Fritz is the author of “Hail of Fire: A Man and His Family Face Natural Disaster,” a memoir of loss and renewal in the wake of the Bastrop County Complex fire in 2011, one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history. Fritz has provided the following excerpt of his book, published by Trinity University Press, to share with our readers.
September 4, 2011, 3:30 p.m. I crossed the motel parking lot just as the trim carpenter who worked on each of the houses I had built drove up in his pickup, pulling a covered trailer. His teenage son was with him. They were sweaty and wearing T-shirts and shorts.
Like so many of our longtime friends, Steve had designed and built his own house and workshop, a project that he had never completely finished. Now firmly in his middle age, he lived with his family just north of the highway on a bumpy county road. He had the lean physique and wiry arms of someone who did meticulous, physical work.
I called out to him. “Hey, Steve, any idea where the fire is at?”
“I can’t say for sure where it is. But I know where it’s been. It was getting ready to tear into our place just as we were leaving.”
I gave him a quizzical look.
“It’s gone,” he said. “As far as I know, nothing’s left.”
He delivered this news like he was giving the time and temperature.
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“Trust me. I know. We got the stuff in this truck and trailer and that’s about it.”
“What about all of your tools?”
“Some of them are in the trailer. But most of them are gone.”
His son wandered off, shuffling his feet, his eyes glued to the ground.
“I don’t know what to say, Steve. This is awful.”
“We’ll get by. It’s only stuff.”
“It’s a lot more than that. It’s what you built. It’s where you raised your kids. It’s how you make a living.”
The brief silence was unbearable. “Whatever you need, you can count on us,” I said.
“No, I’m serious Steve. You’re going to need help, there’s no way around it. I promise we’ll be there for you. So will all your other friends.”
I wanted to throw my arms around him, perhaps in the hope that it would shake loose the kind of reciprocal emotion I was expecting. Instead, we stood opposite one another, hands stuffed in our pockets.
“Thanks for saying that,” he said. “Right now, I have to check in and unload some of this stuff in our room. Maybe I’ll see you later.”
Holly came outside a few minutes later. “I saw you talking to Steve,” she said.
“Him and Beth are wiped out. I told him we’d help them in some way.”
“Of course. How could I not?”
“A better question is, How could you? We might soon be in the same spot ourselves. And even if we’re not, what can we do?”
“I had to say something. I don’t see what’s wrong with trying to be helpful.”
“Put yourself in their shoes. What can we, or anyone, realistically do about their situation?”
“Put yourself in my shoes. What would you have said, given that we’re OK and they aren’t?”
“Let’s not argue, OK? We just got here and I’m already exhausted from worrying about our daughter.”
The hotel quickly filled up with a combination of people who already knew their fate, those who feared the worst, and those in a third group that included us. Being in that group created its own set of problems as Holly and I bounced between our room and the impromptu conversations breaking out in the parking lot and on the concrete stairs.
“It’s hard to know what to say to some of these people since the fire hasn’t gotten us yet, and I really don’t think it will,” I said. “Are we supposed to feel guilty compared to them?”
“I don’t think guilt is the right word, but I get your point.”
“It all feels so awkward and strange. Maybe we should just stay in our room.”
“You can do that, but I’d rather spend as little time in there as possible. It’s dark and claustrophobic, especially with the dogs.”
“Are you worried?” I said. “About what might happen to us?”
“Not like you, I imagine. Whatever is going to happen, we can’t do anything about it.”
“I know. But how can you not care?”
“I can care without worrying.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, whatever you call it, I want to know what’s happening,” I said. “Maybe I can find something on the Web. Surely the county has some useful information up there.”
“Go ahead,” said Holly. “I’m going to sit out here for a while with Miranda and the dogs.”
Social media sites were burning up with rumors, secondhand information, mindless speculation, and pleas for information from those who didn’t know what to think or where to turn. Taken as a whole, the information was contradictory, off-kilter, and boiling over with fear and frustration. I couldn’t stop reading it, however, because the only thing worse than bad information in an unfolding catastrophe is no information.
I spent the most time on the county’s emergency management Facebook site, trying to sort out the conflicting and over-the-top statements about who was saved and who wasn’t, especially the growing chorus of know-it-alls who pronounced the subdivision where our middle daughter Amelia lived doomed. While I didn’t necessarily believe it, I knew there was a very good possibility that her house had burned along with everything she owned except her car.
This was an awful situation, but still better than having to give up all that Holly and I had accumulated over three decades of marriage and our practically new home. It wasn’t a real choice, but it felt like one, because how could the fire ask the Fritz family to sacrifice both?
“How much longer are you going to keep this up?” Holly said an hour before midnight.
“I guess I should stop. I can’t believe the county isn’t putting out any useful information.”
“Maybe they don’t know anything.”
“Then they should at least say that. And explain why they don’t know.”
“You’re just working yourself up. If you keep it up much longer, you’ll never get to sleep.”
I closed my laptop and tried to get comfortable with my head on a pillow that felt only slightly more comfortable than a sandbag. As I stared at the ceiling, my anxiety rose. I believed we’d be OK in the end.
But what if we weren’t? How would all of us — but especially Miranda — cope with the loss of our home and keepsakes on the day she became a legal adult?
*Featured/top image: Randy Fritz and his family stand in front of their house before it burned down. Photo courtesy of Randy Fritz.
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