*The following transcription may contain spelling errors.
Christy Fair of Smithville, Texas recently spoke with KUT News about losing her home during the wildfires.
Fair: I always knew the house was going to burn down. When we unlocked its front door for the first time 13 years ago, it seemed as strong and stable as a gymnast’s balance beam waiting for its performer’s approach. But just wait said that tiny whisper. One day when all the elements and conditions are poised and lined up just so, a wicked Tasmanian force will barrel onto its path careening everything into cinders and chaos, collapsing the world around it into a terrifying dismount. I knew this. The woods and air around this house were too tenuous, too charged with fiscal instability.
On the afternoon of September 4th, my husband and I went out to buy some fall tomato plants and walking from our driveway to the car the dry raspy crunch, crunch of the leaves and twigs beneath my feet instantly pierced my ears like an alarm clock. Going into the store, the wind was so strong we both spoke under our breaths at once and urged everyone everywhere to please be careful; don’t do anything foolish today. Back at home, I began preparations for a Baja taco feast in anticipation of a visit from our daughter, who was bringing her new boyfriend from Austin to visit for the first time.
KUT News: Wow. So, what does this piece then go on to kind of, to recount, if you could –
Fair: I didn’t want to go into the nitty-gritty of, you know, the ‘Oh My Goodness’ of everything. I wanted to more, just arc the story from, you know, those moments when we were kind of yanked out of the house, just literally yanked and were just immediately put into like, you know, trauma mode and those hours and moments and those days before we could find anything out was just the hardest thing. I wanted to tell that story; that not knowing, that the whole community just paralyzed, you know, and just clinging to every word those officials were saying; every single word and trying to read, you know, I mean, I got most of my information from the Blue Bonnet Electric guy. I mean, you know, he would say something like we just can’t get into that area right now and that would be him talking about my area. You know, I’m reading into that.
KUT News: How was that for you, that uncertainty?
Fair: Oh, it was extremely stressful, you know, you just couldn’t get through a regular day of any kind without knowing anything because the decisions were hard, you didn’t know if you should go ahead and buy that or borrow it or, you know, decide to go here or go there. You know, it was just the strangest thing with all these little bitty decisions because you didn’t know what you had or didn’t have. But a very sickening feeling that you didn’t. Yeah.
KUT News: And where were you staying during that time?
Fair: We were in Austin and my husband actually had an apartment there for his work purposes and I make note of that, we were just so grateful we had that option. I think we were one of not many that had some kind of a second option to deal with. I mean, of course, he just used it as a pad, like a crash pad, so we didn’t have a darn thing there, much, so you know, that added to the stress of I need a fork, could you go buy two forks, you know. That kind of thing.
KUT News: I hear this over and over again from the people I’ve been talking to; it’s that sitting around and realizing something that you take completely for granted that maybe now you don’t have that anymore. What was that experience like?
Fair: Oh, yeah, you know, it’s, you turn to everything and you go, wait, I don’t have that. And, you know, to this day, my husband and I have this conversation regularly; we’ll ask each other where is the, you know and we’ll name it and it’s like oh yeah, we lost that in the fire. Then the opposite will say; we’ll say, oh no, we lost in the fire and the other one will say, no we bought a new one, we have it. You know, so we’re trying to square what we lost, what we’ve replaced, what we don’t have, you know. I mean, we’re not done by any means.
KUT News: If I could just ask you to kind of walk through a chronology, I guess, from those initial days that you write about until now, coming on a year later, what have you all had to do to kind of rebuild your own lives and what has it been like, if I could just ask for kind of a little bit of narrative about that.
Fair: Okay. Yeah, well, I think what makes our story a little bit different than a lot of folks out there is that we are not originally from those parts. We transplanted ourselves out there, we chose to buy something and live there for 13 years; wanted to be out in the pine woods, that kind of thing. We loved it out there, but as I talk about, I was never secure out there because of those woods, because of the fires.
We had been evacuated before and that scared us then; we didn’t lose anything then but a lot of people did and I just couldn’t, after a while, get real comfortable there anymore. So, I think we were looking towards maybe moving back to Austin eventually, but not yet or anything. So, you know, this hit and it was very traumatic and unexpected and lots to deal with, but it sort of made the decision for us sooner than later and I think as we got through those early weeks trying to adjust and figure out and get stabilized, it became pretty clear by the holidays that we were not going to rebuild and we were not going to go back out there. We were going to come on to Austin.
So, we bought a house in Cherry Creek, South Austin in December, moved in and as I wrote here what was really cool, the captain of our local fire department was also our neighbor and he very generously offered to buy our burnt out property and that just really helped us because it allowed us to say a good solid goodbye to it and put it into his hands, so that was great. So, you know, ever since probably the first of the year we’ve just been slowly kind of putting our new house together and that’s what’s really kept me focused is hearth and home, you know, just really putting a new home together for ourselves and it’s been great.
And I’ll just say this, you don’t have to use it, but it’s actually, I call this the year of living catastrophically because in January my daughter gave birth to our first grandchild way too early and way traumatically, he nearly didn’t make it so that was a hard time after a fire.
In March, my father, whom I very close to, suddenly and very unexpectedly died; that was very traumatic because, you know, we had to leave the state and deal with a whole lot of details around his death and affairs. Then, just recently, I was re-diagnosed, recurrent breast cancer. So, you know, you can not use that but I just wanted to tell you that it has been a hell of a year.
KUT News: This is something that I think may be important for people to understand is that, for those of us outside of this, you think about rebuilding or recovering from these really dramatic catastrophes as a thing in itself, right, we kind of forget that life goes on and other things can pile on top of it and you’re, you know, the story you’re telling me, I think, really illustrates that point.
Fair: Yeah. Yeah, it’s been crazy, I mean, how many people have that many things happen to them in a year.
KUT News: It sounds like the trials of Job –
Fair: It does. It does, but I’ll say it again, what’s kept me totally focused is hearth and home and strength. We have a really strong family, every single one of us are strong and have a good spirit about us, a good can-do, we can make it.
KUT News: You know, you were planning on coming to Austin eventually and this kind of, you know, forced you hand in that regard. What was that like, did you feel any kind of impulse to rebuild in Bastrop, was it more just like well, you know, we’ve been thinking about going to Austin anyway and this is just kind of the end, this is the last straw.
Fair: We did entertain staying out there, you know, we thought well maybe we don’t want to live in those woods but maybe we’ll go to Bastrop or some points in between or something. But, in the end the city girl in me won out. I’m just Austin; I work here, I give here, I live here, the whole thing and it just, you know, it just kind of became clear, it’s like, you know, we need to buy something here; let’s start looking.
KUT News: So, with all these personal things coming up in your life, you feel that working on your new house has kind of provided an anchor for you?
Fair: Absolutely. Total focus there; yeah. It just gives me a sense of okay, I ended this with I guess we don’t live here anymore, you know, but this has turned it around to I live here now. This is my place; this is me. So, I feel like we made the right decision.
KUT News: How about friends and acquaintances from back there; do you stay in touch or what did it kind of do to the community of people that you knew, it sounds as though especially if your street was hit so hard?
Fair: Right. We have been in contact with our neighbors, the one who bought our property and our daughters both graduated from school in Smithville, so their friends and family; many of them though were not hit by the fire so we were kind of alone among our friends, but by no means alone. So many people; so many people. Yeah.
KUT News: What do you think about the community response?
Fair: Oh, as I mentioned here, I have nothing but praise and esteem for the emergency management center, Mike Fischer, Judge Ronnie McDonald was fabulous as a moderator/mediator, Mark Rose from Blue Bonnet Electric – I think Blue Bonnet Electric was amazing in their response, absolutely. I don’t know what they’re going through right now, but I thought they were great. In the sense of the officials and the leaders of the community, fantastic. You know, the citizens, it varied; we went to some of the public briefings there and those were pretty charged, pretty emotional; many, many people struggling to cope with their land, their property, their animals, you know, that kind of thing. And they needed answers and the answers just weren’t coming, you know, the firefighters couldn’t even get in there, I mean, and then there was just so much, unfortunately, looting and people riding their animals through the back trails trying to get to things and make, kind of, unwise choices about going onto property that had life, burning wires and emotions flying everywhere. So, it was pretty gut-wrenching, pretty hard to listen to, you know, your heart went out to everybody while, at the same time, you wanted to say sit down, please sit down, we’re all in the same boat.
KUT News: I was at so many of those briefings just, you know, in my capacity as a reporter and I remember that, the frustration and it sounds like you shared it on one hand because there was no way of knowing, but it also sounds like you feel like there may not have been much to know at those early stages.
Fair: Yeah, and I thought the gentleman running those briefings did a fabulous job of explaining why they couldn’t know and, I mean, they were answering my questions as much as they could, you know. They were great.
KUT News: What remains for ya’ll to be, to, you know, kind of feel or does anything remain to feel, because you said, well now we’re home, you know, what remains to kind of set that up?
Fair: My party was on September 2nd, which is one year exactly to the day that they evacuated us so rudely from our own to which we, of course, have never been back. So, we’re going to have kind of a welcome to our new home open house and invite a few friends that were victims of that, as well, and some of my work friends and just family and others and we’re going to have a great time. And what remains is, you know, life. I’m looking forward for 2013 to be a better year for us; a better year. I think it will be.
KUT News: Could you maybe talk a little bit more about what that experience was; being evacuated and maybe if you want to just kind of paraphrase some of the things you write about in here, if you don’t, you know, to not read the whole thing but just go back to that day and just kind of tell me that story?
Fair: We had come back from getting our tomato plants so I launched into cooking this shrimp taco meal. I was waiting on our daughter to come from Austin and bring her new boyfriend who hadn’t seen our place out there yet. So, I was just busy, busy, busy working on that and it was just really funny. I stepped out on the back deck for a few moments and when I did, I noticed a shift in the air; it was very perceptible, kind of like the barometric pressure was dropping. My husband was standing over the way and I said we having some weather? And he walked around, kind of looked up, we couldn’t smell anything, there was nothing in the sky, it was clear, you know, everything was just fine. But there was something different in the air.
He walked around and he came back around and he said I don’t think this is weather, I think something’s happened. And I went back inside and right then my phone rang and it was my daughter and she was coming through actually the Tahitian Village area and she said the sky was so billowy black that she couldn’t see to drive and she wanted to know what was going on. I said I don’t know, we don’t see anything out here, just, why don’t you come on and we’ll get it figured out.
A few minutes later there were there and the new boyfriend came in and he was just looking around and it was very beautiful out there. He was just looking at all the pine trees and saying this is great, you know, just really exclaiming over how wonderful it was and I don’t think five or so minutes went by and there was a big rap at the door, it was firefighter who said we had to go right then. I mean, he was pretty urgent. So, you know, here I am in the middle of my taco makings, so I got this bag and I just put the whole kitchen counter onto it and loaded it up. I mean, we’re talking half made salsa and all this stuff, so I just handed it to the new boyfriend. I hadn’t met him, I mean, he was just there for the first time and I said take her, go, just go, you know, and we grabbed our purses and cell phones and the firefighter was just, you know. Then, everything was shutting down, electricity, everything.
So, everybody, we got into three different cars and I got into my car and remembered my Poblano pepper in the refrigerator, I’m crazy. It’s like, you know, I’m going to get that pepper. So, I ran back into the house and grabbed and the firefighter is like, so I ran right back out and like I said there, I mean, I literally thought am I ever going to open this door again. So, we got in the cars, pulled up at the top of our drive, got over to 71, which is about one-third of the mile up the way there and we could no longer turn the way she had just driven, my daughter, you know, they had all that blocked off, a wall of fire towards Tahitian Village. We had to turn east towards Smithville, take the farm road all the way up to 290, get ourselves back to Austin.
It took us a couple of hours, we finally made it back. I stubbornly made the taco meal. We just sat around like nuts for hours trying to, you know, my husband didn’t have any kind of a TV or anything; all we had was like a laptop at that apartment, so we were trying desperately to see what we could figure out and, you know, the news was just kind of sketchy and people didn’t really know. Those days immediately following were so hard because the decisions about go to work, go to school, what do we do, should we, we can’t work, we can’t think, you know, kind of thing. But in the end, I actually was retired so that was not an issue for me, but in the end husband and daughter decided to just go and focus work while I stayed at the apartment and obsessed.
KUT News: It’s wild the things people choose to bring with them in those moments, I guess. Just having looked through the stories.
Fair: I don’t know what possessed me, but I love to cook for one thing and I guess I just, I was just not going to leave that there, especially if the house didn’t burn down and I couldn’t get back for 20 days.
KUT News: It’s giving me an idea for what you might serve at your party.
Fair: Oh, I’ve got it going on, yeah, I’m going to have food stations everywhere. I’m going to have a bunch of dips, I’m going to make Texas caviar, guacamole with pecans and I’m going to make a crab dip and let’s see, I’m going to bake some bread and cheese and herby butter and then over here on a buffet table I’m going to have some shrimp ceviche and chicken wings and some of my famous slow cooked brisket with pico de gallo, so that’s at that table. Meanwhile, over on the dessert table, I’m going to have cupcakes, cowboy chocolate chip cookies to die for made by my sister-in-law and some lemon pie squares and then out in the living room, I’m going to have a massive bar.
KUT News: It sounds awesome. Revisiting the sight of your home, probably a hard thing to talk about, but what was that experience like once you finally were able to, you know, determine that you had lost, like you said, everything and you were able to get back in there?
Fair: The drive from Austin back to Smithville seemed long. It seemed real sad and yet kind of hopeful, you know, like well, maybe, just maybe and we pulled up, we have kind of a little bit of a longish drive, not really, but pulled up to the top of our drive and later we all agreed that our reaction was a little bit delayed. It’s funny because this was my husband, my daughter and myself and it’s funny because we all three thought of our red garage door, because when you get to the top of our drive, that’s the first thing you see. And we all three were like where’s the garage door and then it was like oh, it’s not there. So, we had to get out of our vehicle there at the top of the drive because of all the ash and the hot spots and they did want us to watch out for ash pits so we felt like we had to tread carefully.
Another funny thing is on the way there, I made my husband stop and buy three gallon jugs of water because I had it in my head that if the house was still there, I was watering my plants. But, we ended up putting plastic bags on our shoes and when we were finished looking at the devastation, we ended up using that water to rinse our feet off and I don’t know, there is no feeling like looking at nothing but rubble of what was your life. I mean, nothing but rubble.
KUT News: You were attracted to this place because you enjoyed the trees, you and your husband, but you also had a feeling of the potential danger behind that.
Fair: I believe that it was mostly me that had that feeling. You know, I mean, everyone that lives in that area is aware that, you know, we have to be careful, burn bans, potential for fire, potential for grass fire, you know, everything and those state parks out there, anything could happen. My husband was keenly aware of all those risks and did a lot for our family as far as keeping a clear perimeter around our house, in fact, that may be what made us the most hopeful of all during the wait, because of the work he did and we thought just maybe, you know. But, I just couldn’t get over the feeling, you know. It was partly those swaying pine trees and partly the crunch of the ground and all the burn bans all the time and the previous evacuations and the previous fires, the previous devastation of the road next to us that nearly got to our road and didn’t, you know, that was me, I think.
KUT News: Yeah, I mean, it was already such a hard summer –
Fair: Oh yeah, anyway, yeah. But, as I said, we’re a strong family and I pretty much believe in claiming victory wherever I can. So, I will.
KUT News: Are there ways you found to try, you know, people talk about losing photographs, they talk about losing personal items; are there ways you found to try to fill that at all, have you found photos from other places, you know, I’m kind of curious about how people go about trying to piece all that back together?
Fair: Our friends and family sprang into action on that level. Luckily, we have several good, good friends who are just digital camera buffs and they got back into their stuff and just got some good stuff back up for us and sent it off to us. My older daughter went on a big campaign in our extended family and dredged up some older family photos for us. I mean, not everything, of course, lost many things that I can replace, you know, some heirlooms from my mother and that kind of thing. But, you know, to that you kind of have to say goodbye and just maybe look around for something that she might have had today if she were here and replace it that way. So, yeah, the friends and family were phenomenal in that regard and in many other regards, you know, gift cards, they know I love to cook so they literally rained cookbooks upon me; that was great because I did lose some prized cookbooks. So, things like that.
KUT News: So, I’m trying to think about other questions I might have and I starting to run out of them. Do you, is there anything else that you would add or anything else you might want to read.
Fair: Can I read the last paragraph, you think?
KUT News: I would love that.
Fair: Okay. Standing again in front of our sad rubble, my husband showed me where our front door had once been and on its now non-existent threshold I laid a bouquet of flowers. In my mind, I closed that front door one final time and told our house I was very sorry it endured such a sudden and violent demise. I thanked it for holding all our memories and keeping us safe and warm all those years. My husband patted one of its broken bricks and declared it a mighty fine party palace for a while. So, I guess it’s really true, we don’t live here anymore.
KUT News: I’m curious to ask and I hope it’s not too personal but how your grandchild is doing?
Fair: He has been the success. That was very terrifying, very traumatic; in those early days, he spent many, many, many days in neonatal ICU but he’s doing great. He’s doing great.
KUT News: That’s great to hear.
Fair: He’s our one success story of the year, but we claim victory wherever we can.