At least 70,000 wildfires happen every year in America, and most regenerate healthy forests, culling underbrush, improving the soil, and unspooling the life resting inside pinecones.
Some of them shed their better natures, mutating into something dangerous enough that heavy equipment and elite firefighters must be called in. Of those, only a few turn into criminals, taking lives and destroying homes.
But in the modern era, there have been only two wildfires, both in California, more vicious and pitiless than the one that changed my life after nearly killing me. With the tag-team help of a malicious sun that baked Central Texas dry for months and a tropical storm that uncoiled from the Gulf of Mexico with a hateful wind instead of rain, the fire that ravaged Bastrop County — my home for more than 30 years — on a holiday weekend in 2011 left behind a scorched and violated landscape shaped like a giant teardrop.
The fire started in two separate locations as people were returning home from church or finishing their lunches. In each case, a dead tree on private property blew into a power line, and the resulting sparks lit the bounty of fuel on the ground — a desiccated carpet of pine needles and twigs that were like gasoline vapor waiting for a match.? The wind curling off Tropical Storm Lee’s dry side energized the embryonic flames. In short order, as they skittered along the ground, vaulted from tree to tree, and sprinted from house to house, the fires began shooting off flaming pieces of bark or wood, like the sparks of a campfire, except the embers weren’t innocent or nostalgic.
As these fiery hailstones prepped the drought-stricken forest for the arrival of each fire, yet another one began five miles southwest of the first two before the event was an hour old. By the time the conflagration crossed Highway 71 — one of the major arterials connecting two of the nation’s largest cities — they had merged into a colossus, and a thousand homes were burning or about to be.
The teardrop-shaped fire destroyed more homes, and upended more lives, than any other fire in Texas history. It reached a level of intensity that fire experts have scientifically confirmed only a handful of times before.
One of them — the 1980 Mack Lake Fire in the northern region of Lower Michigan — released as much energy as ten Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs and destroyed almost forty square miles of remote forest. That inferno had horizontal roll vortices, which are like twisters of fire spinning on their sides.
For the vortices to form, a wildfire has to create its own unspeakable environment, a violent and unstoppable combination of flames, heat, smoke, convection, and wind. At that point, the fire’s hellish ecosystem curls the flames near the treetops and spins them parallel to the doomed ground below.
The flipped-on-their-side twisters are like a conveyor belt that allows the fire to glide across the forest’s ceiling. They are also a catastrophic fire’s unmistakable “I was here” inscription, signifying a power and force that can be described with over-the-top metaphors or, conversely, with an utter lack of poetry: “uncontrollable by any means under human manipulation,” in the words of an expert who has studied the effect.
The Bastrop wildfire spawned dozens of horizontal roll vortices that left their long and narrow tattoos on almost 55 square miles of seared land-scape, much more forestland than the 10-H-bomb Mack Lake Fire wiped out. Some of them were in the neighborhood where my children were born and grew into strong, confident, and beautiful young women, and where my wife and I planned to live out our remaining days.
My story is about what this hail of fire did to the iconic pine forest I cherished and revered, and the creatures that lived in it, including our three dogs. It is about what happened to my wife and our three daughters, one of whom turned 21 on the day the fire reached its climax. Most of all, it is the story of what fire — my former friend and artistic collaborator — brought about as it ripped me from my comfortable and self-satisfied life and brought me to a place both strangely familiar and utterly new.
In America, but especially in Texas, there is a mythology of what a man is supposed to be like. A man figures out what he wants and goes after it. He knows what he believes, and a little trouble isn’t going to talk him out of it. When circumstances knock him down, he gets up, brushes himself off, and gets going again, possibly with a laugh and definitely not with tears. If things really go haywire, he doesn’t waste time complaining about it or begging for help. With a clear head and steely resolve, he fixes it.
Before the fire, I modeled myself after that myth. Then, as often happens with a natural disaster or some other event that is as shocking as it is unforeseeable, I involuntarily turned into something different. As my new self replaced the old one, I didn’t need a feel-good story or inspirational blog or self-help book to prop me up and show me the way back to how things were. I needed something or someone to help me understand what was happening to me and why it was irreversible. I needed strength and knowledge from the community of shared experience.
I needed a book like this one.
*Featured/top image: Randy Fritz stands in a forest. Photo courtesy of Randy Fritz.