Even With Wildfire Risk, Some Residents Plan to Rebuild
By Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News and Reporting Texas.com
With more than 1,600 homes burned to the ground in Bastrop County, many in the area are now looking to rebuild. In the exact same spot. Where two fires have struck in the past three years.
Bastrop High School teacher Mary Gray sifted through a pile of rubble. It’s all that’s left of her 16-year home in Smithville. The remains litter the ground, crunching beneath her sneakers.
With her ex-husband, Richard, Gray pieced together some mementos. A china cup from her great-aunt. Shards of broken wind chimes. And two clear blue marbles — the eyes from a statue of a bear named Ralph that used to sit on the front porch.
“Yeah, we can maybe find his eyes. I think they were. Is that one of his eyes? That’s one of his eyes!” Gray said, laughing.
Gray plans to rebuild her home right where it was. She’s well aware of the possibility of another fire.
“I guess I think it can’t happen again, but I know it can,” she said. “We had fires in 2009, and some of those same homes burned again with this fire. And some people may say that’s just really stupid, to think you’re going to go back and build in with those trees. I just feel too connected to the land.”
Community is another reason for her to stay. On Wednesday, the Red Cross came by to check on her. Then a state trooper stopped by, looking for any suspicious activity. And then, a total stranger rolled up.
“I had no idea what he wanted, he started taking out his wallet and hands me a $100 bill,” Gray said. “Somebody I had never met. I didn’t even ask him his name. I couldn’t really talk. He couldn’t really talk. We were both so choked up.”
Right now, Gray practically lives in her jeep. After two weeks of crashing with a friend, she’ll move into a 25-foot trailer where she will live for least a year, waiting on the construction of her new house. Gray also faces the task of totaling up the value of her home and all of her belongings to file an insurance claim. But the insurance company will only reimburse Gray for the depreciated value of everything she lost in the fire.
“I’m worried about being underinsured,” she said. “I know I will never be able to build as much house as I had there. I mean, it’s tight; even though you have the random acts of kindness, it’s still going to be tight.”
When she was done surveying the wreckage, Gray packed up the remains of her old life.
All of it fit neatly into two plastic bins. She said that if the walls of her old house were still standing, they would speak of three little boys.
“I think of my boys, growing up,” she said. “I think of my youngest son, he always had such an imagination. He was always fighting ninjas in the study.”
For her new house, Gray envisions a Spanish-Mediterranean style home, surrounded by her favorite towering pine trees and filled with the people she loves.
“It’s going to be family, sons a little older, friends a little older, and I’m just going to hear a bunch of little grandchildren running around, just running around,” she said.