By Colin McDonald
BASTROP — Michael Hritz lives in a FEMA trailer parked in his driveway, surrounded by the blackened trunks of stout loblolly pines.
He's still at least a year from moving into his house, where a tree trunk with one burned spot serves as a support beam in his new living room, as well as a reminder of what happened one year ago.
On the anniversary of last year's 32,000-acre Bastrop Complex fire, Hritz hoped he'd be out of the trailer. But fights with insurance companies and banks and the black mold that grew on the walls of the trailer set him back, and he still has work to make his new home habitable.
Hritz will not live long enough to see the pine forest return to his 160-foot-wide lot.
Like his neighbors and the endangered Houston toad, he is facing a daily struggle to establish a new life in what essentially is a new land.
"It's hard to go from living in a dense, cool forest to what will eventually become a cow pasture," he said of his property, where almost all the trees are dead.
Hritz's A-frame home was one of the first consumed by the most destructive forest fire in Texas history. It killed two people and destroyed 1,696 homes in the Lost Pines.
The forest is an isolated island of tall pines in the Central Texas ranchlands, separated by about 100 miles from the vast loblolly forests in East Texas.
The blaze consumed most of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park and wiped out much of the habitat of the endangered Houston toad.
Only a dozen adult toads were found in a recent survey, down from several thousand in the 1990s.
Hritz lost his grandfather's violins, a mortgage and a 20-year-old cockatiel he thought was loaded into the other car.
Eight days later, the family returned and found the fire had left a cement slab. The fireplace had melted. The china was gone. In some odd quirk, the backboard of the basketball hoop, a bird house nailed to a tree and one roll of toilet paper remained untouched.
"If I could go back to my forest I would go back," he said, surveying the changed landscape. "But I would be more tolerant of open space."
It's that change in perspective that the Texas Forest Service hopes more landowners adopt.
Pine woods, as well as the grasslands and scrublands that cover almost all of Texas, including Bexar County, should periodically burn to reduce fuels and regenerate, said Justice Jones, Texas Forest Service wildland urban interface and prevention coordinator.
"There is a tendency to focus on the losses," he said, but he points out that not all the homes that were exposed to the forest fire burned.
According to the forest service, 1,091 homes were saved, meaning they were threatened by the fire and either survived or were saved because of actions by firefighters. While the fire tore through Bastrop State Park, its cabins were spared.
"It is not random," Jones said. "Fire has to follow the laws of physics and the laws of combustion."
Reducing chance of loss
Jones said a fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen to burn. Taking away one of those elements, such as removing flammable material from around the home by cleaning out gutters or clearing brush, is a way to significantly reduce the chance of a home being lost.
Jones said he and others studying the effects of the Bastrop fire are seeing homes that had just a few feet around their foundations cleared of brush or anything combustible survive.
"That can be achieved for less than $100 at Home Depot," he said. "It takes a pair of clippers."
Other things that can be done include putting metal mesh over air vents so sparks can't fly into the home and having a roof and siding made of something that not will readily burn.
The Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team now requires these changes on any home it helps rebuild.
Jones does not say that taking these measures will assure a home will survive a fire, but they are steps that will go a long way to increase a structure's odds of survival.
"It would be equivalent of 'OK, we had a hurricane, but I'm going to rebuild. But I'm not going to rebuild in the way I did before. I'm going to build in a way that is compatible with my environment,'" he said.
Even in Bastrop State Park, the difference between being prepared for fire and not is obvious. Where park staff was able to clear underbrush by machine or by setting small fires, the pine trees had a much higher survival rate.
Millions of seedlings
Bastrop State Park manager Roger Dolle likes to give tours where on one side of the road, the pines appear much like they did before the fire.
Here, where park staff lit periodic ground fires that cleared out the undergrowth, the pines still give off their vanilla scent and sunbeams occasionally poke through the green canopy.
On the other side of the park road, where the forest floor was choked with brush, pine needles and fallen limbs, the hillside looks like it was used as a missile firing range.
All that remains of the trees are indentations in the earth where the fire burned the trunks to the ground and then consumed the roots.
Without the trees, the topsoil washed away, leaving behind gray rocks that cracked from the fire's intense heat.
The difference between having prescribed fires and not is a forest able to recover to pre-fire status within a few years and one that will take a few centuries, Dolle said.
Because it will take so long to regenerate sections of the forest, if at all, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Arbor Day Foundation and Texas A&M Forest Service have started the Lost Pines Forest Recovery Campaign.
The multiyear, public-private partnership will raise money to plant more than 4 million trees on public and private land during the next five years.
To help those seedlings compete with the oaks and other deciduous trees that now are rapidly growing and trying to establish themselves, a stepped-up prescribed fire program will be put in place, Dolle said.
The trees that died because of the fire and ongoing drought will all be on the ground in five years, ready to support another massive fire.
Until that fuel is reduced by small, low-intensity fires, the fire danger in Bastrop will remain high, he said.
Forest drew him
Hritz moved to his house because he loved the forest. He liked that his A-frame could not be seen from the road. He liked looking out his windows to watch the seasons change just by looking at the leaves.
For him, dealing with the threat of a forest fire was like health care.
He had an uneasy feeling about the vulnerability of his home, but didn't know exactly what to do. He was getting conflicting information about what he could do to his land, which had the potential to be habitat for the Houston toad.
He had lived in the house for eight years and had never heard of a forest fire.
Although it will take more than a year, Hritz is ahead of most of his neighbors in rebuilding. He has the exterior of the new house complete and is doing most of the finishing work himself.
By November, he plans to call FEMA to have the trailer towed away.
"We are in a different place now," he said.
And his new home is going to be taken care of differently.
Or it's going to go up in smoke.
The Leon Law Firm www.theleonlawfirm.com has helped many people in the Bastrop area and can help you if you ever find yourself in such a situation. Call us at 281-980-4529.