Debbie Opdahl from Spicewood, Texas recently spoke with KUT News about her experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Opdahl: Well, it was Sunday of Labor Day weekend and my husband and my neighbors and I had gone to a house concert that was about two miles from our home. We were there drinking wine and having a great time and finally somebody told me I needed to answer my phone, which had been apparently ringing in my purse for quite some time. My 16-year-old daughter was home alone and she could see – our house is three story. It’s all glass on one – on one side and she could see the fires coming across the valley that’s out by us and the wind was blowing about 45 miles an hour and the fires were quickly approaching our house and she was trying to get a hold of us.
KUT News: And so, what exactly did she say?
Opdahl: She – all the neighbors were calling her wondering where we were and she was – she was pretty calm for a 16-year-old and she just said that the fires were – were getting closer and closer and they looked like they were going to hit our home. So, when something like that happens, you always think this can’t really be happening, so my neighbor and I went – my neighbor, Lori, and I stayed and drank wine and our husbands went to check on the fires and see how close it really was. By the time my daughter called me back, even where we were, which was a couple miles away, ash was starting to rain down on the home that we were in. So, Lori and I asked my daughter to come pick us up and by the time we got back to the house, the fires were right there and the – the officials were there with their sirens and they were driving up and down the streets yelling at everybody on loud speakers to get their belongings and get out.
We had maybe 10 to 15 minutes to go in the house and my advice to my daughter was to put on sensible shoes. As we’re grabbing things to take with us, my husband was standing in the middle of each room with a camera taking pictures 360 around the room so that we would have a record of what – what was in our home. We really thought we were going to lose our home. Fire was coming up the road. We had to drive through flames to get out of our subdivision. So, my daughter – we loaded up our cats, a couple of pictures that my mom painted and some photo albums. I mean, that’s all we had time to get. My husband told us to go ahead and leave and he’d be right behind us, which was a lie. But we – we got out of the subdivision and we kind of got together with some neighbors up on this other road and we – we just had a caravan and first we went to Angel’s, which is a bar out on Highway 71 and then we went over to Pootie’s, which is another bar on 71.We never went in. We just sat out in their parking lots.
Finally, we decided we needed to be back where we could at least see what was going on. My husband still, of course, had not joined us. So, we drove back toward the fire and went to this fishing camp called – Pete and Mona’s is the name of the fishing camp. The flames were so thick. We – we parked there. The riverbed’s dry, completely dry, so there was no water, and we parked at the fishing camp. You couldn’t even see across the – across the dry riverbed and it was maybe 200 yards, because the smoke was so think and homes were just exploding and propane tanks were exploding, ammunition was going off. I have several friends that were in Vietnam, several neighbors, and they said it was like being in Vietnam because of the thick smoke. Every once in a while, we could see our homes and see that they hadn’t burned yet, but there were flames shooting up probably 40 feet in the air behind them and the wind was blowing, so we – we weren’t ever sure that they weren’t going to go ahead and burn as well.
KUT News: So, your husband took off…
Opdahl: My husband stayed to fight the fire. He – he pretty much – he hid from the authorities and every once in a while, I could see our home. It’s three story, it’s got this big shed roof and I could see Chris standing up on the roof looking around trying to get a position on where the fires were coming. I did – I could occasionally speak with him on his cell phone. Sometimes he didn’t answer. That was the scariest time and he – where we live, we don’t have fire hydrants and the only water we have is pumped out of our well and requires electricity to pump the well. Well, the electricity went out right away, so we had no water to fight the fires and he was dipping – he had a couple of five gallon buckets and he was dipping water from the neighbor’s hot tub and then driving around in the golf cart with a shovel and the five gallon buckets of water and just trying to look at where he could save a home. If a – if a tree or the grass was burning around a house, he would try to – to deal with that home, but there were so many fires and the wind continue to blow so hard. He ended up – he saved the homes that were along the bluff, but we ended up losing 10 homes in our subdivision. He was pretty devastated about that.
KUT News: How many homes do you think he saved?
Opdahl: I believe that by keeping this one man’s wooden deck from burning, because then once it burned, the wind was blowing so hard, it would have taken out all of the homes on the bluff. I believe he probably saved six to eight homes. In the middle of the night – or about nine that night, some other neighbors snuck back across and – and started helping him fight the fires and they fought all night. I had my 16-year-old daughter and didn’t want to take her back across because I just wasn’t sure – well, it was obviously just a very dangerous situation and so I promised – and she was very frantic. She wanted to lay her eyes on her father and – and again, homes were exploding and burning all night. We listened to those propane tanks and ammunition all night, I mean, for hours and hours and hours.
The next morning, about three in the morning, another neighbor’s house caught on fire. I could see it start and as soon as the sun came up, my daughter, Casey, and I walked back across the river and were very grateful to see my husband. Fires continued to burn for probably two weeks, not certainly once the wildfire passed, it was just trees that had gotten really hot that would continue to explode and bur
n. During the night, the bad night, I call it the bad night, I had called the fire department multiple times, but they just didn’t have anybody to send. The fires were so massive and they – it wasn’t that they were being unresponsive, they just didn’t have anyone to send and you could just hear the heartbreak in their voices, when I’d call and say, “But there’s homes burning in my subdivision,” and they’d just say, “We would love – we just – we can’t help you,” and they were just as devastated, of course, as – as we were. We got back across.
There were seven of us that crossed the next morning and we had two golf carts and by that time, we had gone into other neighbor’s homes and gotten other – gotten shovels, robbed their homes of coolers and waste paper baskets, anything that we could fill with water. When we weren’t fighting an active fire, we would go to the hot tub and fill as many buckets of water as we could and line the roads, so that if a fire broke out, we weren’t having to drive all the way back to the hot tubs to fight the fires and that’s how we fought fires for probably three days.
KUT News: With hot tub water?
Opdahl: With hot tub water and swimming pool water and shovels. So, it was, you know, I – I – I – I wrote a Facebook article about my husband and, you know, some people might call him not leaving foolish. He could have easily been trapped in the fire and I guess I – I told myself because he couldn’t because he always could’ve run across the lake or the riverbed, but when the wind’s blowing and the flames are going 40 miles an hour, he could’ve gotten trapped, but in my mind and in many of our neighbor’s minds, he was a hero. I did hear of one really good story about another neighbor who was trying to get out and he was with a friend whose father also lived out there and – and the friend went to get his father out and my neighbor got trapped. He couldn’t see. The flames and the smoke were so bad, he couldn’t – he got disoriented and he couldn’t figure out how to get back to the road and he was completely surrounded by flames and all he had was a wheelbarrow and he got underneath the wheelbarrow and he had a bottle of water and he held a rag over his face while he’s trapped under this wheelbarrow and then my neighbor came back for him and honked the horn and by him following the sounds of the horn honking, he was able to get out and leave.
KUT News: Oh, my god. Unbelievable. Well, tell me, when your – did you know Chris, your husband, left with your neighbor’s husband to go fight the fires.
KUT News: Did you think they were just going over to check on – on your house and give you a report or –
KUT News: One second – get this going here.
Opdahl: On the – on the bad Sunday when we were still at the house concert, yes, I mean, obviously Lori and I stayed and drank wine. We – we just thought that they would come back and say, “Ah, it’s nothing,” or “They’re putting it out.” We had no idea and then my daughter called back and said, “Dad told me that if there’s anything I want I should get it in the car and get ready to leave.” So, then she came and picked Lori and I up. So, we didn’t know that they would end up fighting fires and actually my neighbor’s husband had some common sense and left with her, but he is one of the ones that snuck back across after – after a few hours and started fighting fires as well. But, the next day, when we all snuck across, there were seven of us, including my 16-year-old daughter who didn’t utter one word of complaint. She carried five gallon buckets of water.
We were filthy. We didn’t have anything to eat. We had some water. We had popsicles. We were trying to eat all the popsicles out of my refrigerator because we didn’t have any power and we were – they were melting so popsicles and beer and some water. That’s what we had to eat for probably the first 24 hours. Then they started letting in the church ladies and – and we were starting to sneek back across – back and forth across the river. The police soon realized that people were doing that and the put up – they had a couple policeman standing there, but we knew it. We would just back further up the river and sneek across and really, when we got back to our subdivision, the police were driving through. They didn’t care. They knew we were fighting the fires and there still weren’t enough fire people to go around and so they – nobody ever threatened us to leave.
The next day, we got up on the roof of our house and we could see all around Central Texas and there were fires burning in Steiner Ranch and Bastrop and Leander and it just looked like – and still fires burning all around us and it just looked like – it looked like all of Texas was burning. So, it – it’s – you can see why the emergency response system was stressed. I’m not trying to make those people out as bad at all, because once they could get in, they were there pretty much constantly, you know, and helping us out. We would try to fight a fire as much as we could and if it got away from us, we would call them and they were there instantly and they – they didn’t care. The wind was blowing. It would pick ash up and swirl it in the air and it would make it look like – I was calling them smoke tornados, but you couldn’t really tell if it was a fire or just ash and we probably had several false alarms there, but they didn’t care. They were great. And then after the second day, they got the overhead – the planes and helicopters that could go to – they’d drive over to Lake Travis and suck up water and then come back and spray it on the fires.
KUT News: So after the second day, you weren’t fighting fires?
Opdahl: No, we were still fighting fires. We weren’t calling. I mean, they were using the overhead fire suppression for the – there were still huge fires and they were using those to try to save homes. No, we – we fought fires for probably two weeks. The under – the cove where there’s usually water, there’s all these plants and the fire was really burning underground and so fires would just erupt everywhere. Like I said, trees that would have gotten hot, they might have sat there for a couple days and then all of a sudden it just explode into flames. So, we – we – we fought them for quite a while.
KUT News: And how did you – how did you fight them? You had your buckets and you had your water. What would you do with the shovel?
Opdahl: We used the shovels to beat the fire back. We also had some towels. We’d wet the towels and we would use those just on the grass fire parts. We’d try to put the buckets of water on the trees and then if it was just a grass fire, we had wet towels and we’d lay them in the coolers that we’d filled with water and we’d beat the fires back with those.
KUT News: So you’re beating the fires back from the trees?
Opdahl: And from people’s houses because the – the flames – the fire’s real capricious. I mean, where it would burn, sometimes it would skip a house and then this one man’s house that we thought was totally fine two days later burned up. So, you know, a tree was back behind it that we didn’t know was hot and it caught on fire and it was back on the back side and, you know, by the time we got back to it, it was gone. So…
KUT News: You weren’t touching because that would have burned your hands. You were looking…
Opdahl: We were looking, yeah. Yeah, we were looking.
KUT News: My goodness, so did you – did you get any sleep at all?
Opdahl: We didn’t have a whole lot of sleep. Finally, about – plus, you were afraid to go to sleep because the fires just kept popping up everywhere and the wind was still blowing. The wind didn’t quit blowing for several days. So, it – it was hard to make yourself to go sleep. We – we all suffered from a – from a bit of insomnia there for several weeks. You were afraid if you fell asleep that a fire would come and you would know about it and so we kind of took turns for a while sleeping and staying up.
KUT News: And this was a team of neighbors.
Opdahl: Yeah, a team of seven, our little band of seven. Jeff and Lori Hall, Matt Lara, Lee and Ron and Dave and Penny and then my – that might be more than seven. Anyway, there was a group of us that were – that were fighting the fires and you know, going back across and getting some food. This was after day three. We started getting a tad more organized and getting some food to eat. And again, then by day three, the church ladies were there and they would bring in – we had Gatorade and water piled up to almost the second story of my neighbor’s house, fire extinguishers, gloves, bottles of water, sandwiches. So they were – we couldn’t have done it. Spicewood isn’t incorporated. It’s just more of a zip code.
It’s not like Bastrop or any of the other communities who had much worse to deal with, but I would argue their aftermath has been easier because we – we – not – in Spicewood, we’ve sort of had to just come together as a community and – and rebuild. We don’t have a group that can get funding. We have individuals that can get funding and we’ve applied for that, but we don’t have a City Hall and a Mayor and somebody that can take that funding and oversee that effort. So, one of my neighbors, Mark Creany, he’s been very good about just working with all the churches and, in fact, that’s how many of my neighbors that didn’t have insurance are building. Like, one church will come in and they’ll do everybody’s foundations and one church will come in and they’ll do everybody’s framing. So, that’s – that’s how we’re doing it in Spicewood.
KUT News: So, Chris, you consider your hero?
Opdahl: I do consider him my hero. He’s – he – he stayed up all night and I have to tell you it was very horrifying. I couldn’t see him many times and then once it got dark, you could see flames shooting up behind our home. In fact, I thought, at one time, it was our home and – and when I would talk to him, sometimes he’d say, “Oh, our house is okay,” and then I’d talk to him the next time and he’s day, “No, nope, the wind’s shifted.” My husband’s very – he’s Norwegian and he’s very reserved and there’s – there’s sort of a funny story where – I’ll leave out the one bad word that he said, but he – he was standing on the deck with his neighbor and the ash was landing on this wooden deck and they were trying to keep this deck from catching a fire because then all these other homes would have burned. It as a huge deck and there was – there were just flames and trees that were like falling over and landing on the deck and my husband just looked over at this neighbor and he started laughing and he goes, “Man, this is some stuff, huh?” So, for – for Chris, you know, that’s like high exuberance because he’s – he’s pretty quiet.
KUT News: And so he kept his head the whole time.
Opdahl: He did keep his head. Yes, I always felt that if I was in disaster, that I’d want to be with Chris and he’s very logical. We call him MacGyver if anybody remembers that TV show because he can just take nothing and figure out something. So, he – he was – he was our hero. I have one other cute story. One night, this was maybe day five, our cove had caught on fire and we called the fire department and they had actually sent a brush truck, but it was 10:30 at night, it was dark, and I think when they were driving into the cove, they must have hit a stump or run over a stump and – and the truck died. So, my husband and this other neighbor, Matt, who’s an electrical engineer, but also has tons of common sense, they’re sitting there in the golf cart and the fire department guys aren’t saying anything. They aren’t putting out the fire. They’re acting all sheepish.
So, finally Chris goes over and – and he said, you know, “Is there a problem?” and the fireman goes, “Well, can you just give us a ride back up to the top of the hill? We need to – you know, we’ll get in the Sheriff’s car.” And Chris goes, “Well, what’s happening?” and he goes, “Well, I don’t know but the truck’s dead.” So, Matt, the other neighbor, he crawls under the truck and he has a flashlight in his mouth and he’s laying under there and he’s like, “I see a loose wire,” and he goes, “Do you have a wrench?” The fire guys didn’t have anything, but in my husband’s golf cart, he had a wrench. So, Matt undoes it and redoes his cable and Matt goes, “You got any cable ties?” These guys didn’t have any cable ties, but of course, Chris had a cable tie and so Matt ties it all back together and gets the fire truck running and they put the fire out and leave. So, to me, that just sort of sums up the can-do attitude or spirit of my neighbor…
KUT News: That’s wonderful.
Opdahl: My neighborhood. Yeah.
KUT News: So, what else would you like to tell us?
Opdahl: One more cute story, my neighbor, Penny, and I – they had Highway 71 completely closed off, but after the third day, they started to open it back up and you had to have wrist bands to get back in to the neighborhood. You would go to the Bee Creek United Methodist Church and get a wristband. You had to prove that you lived there. But then people starting showing up and just wanting to tour, you know, to – to look and see what was going on. They weren’t really offering any help. They were just – and – and – and possibly, I mean, one neighbor even caught a guy like stealing some stuff from his home that had burned.
So, my neighbor, Penny, and I set up a command post at the end of our road and we had a stuffed giant horse that we named Mr. Ed because were on patrol and we had her gun and if anybody knows me, I’m a huge pacifist. I don’t own a gun, but – but we had a gun. It just seemed like what we needed because there were looters and stuff and so Penny and I – we – so we did have to have 24 hour a day guard duty there for – for probably about a week, but that was all real funny and – and most people, when we turned them away, if they – if they couldn’t say specifically why they needed to come in our subdivision, they – we wouldn’t let them in and most people were very gracious and weren’t trying to cause problem at all, but there were a few that – that would see us there and they’d just shoot a you. They wouldn’t even try to come down the road. So, we – we did it all, I’d say, over that one or two week period.
KUT News: My goodness. You fought fires and you kept the neighborhood safe.
Opdahl: We did.
KUT News: What else did you do?
Opdahl: That’s probably about it. We comforted each other. When – when we evacuated, we had these wonderful neighbors that live right across the riverbed, probably 300 feet, I mean, 300 yards, maybe a little further, directly across from our home, so even though I had to sit there and watch everything burn up, I – I had to be able to see it when the fires were happening and Lee and Ron are the neighbor’s names and, I mean, Lee is just such a comforter and she had food and she had alcohol and she had whatever – blankets and a shoulder to cry on and well stayed up all night and just held each other and – and we couldn’t have done it without Lee and Ron and we – we went over to their house. We spent a couple of more nights there and they even let my cats run loose in their home, which they’re not cat people. I thought that was also above and beyond the call of duty and they had – they had guests at their home, fire evacuees for – well, they had probably 10 of us for three days and then they had another family that stayed with them for probably two to three months. So, they are heroes in my book as well. And, you know, it just – if – if I’ve learned anything from this whole experience and I have to say it was the most frightening thing I’ve ever gone through in my life for such an extended period, you know, it wasn’t like I was really scared for 10 minutes or two hours.
It was days, but it’s just the goodness of people. We have the most amazing neighbors. What we went through, it’s like we’re family. You know, who closes the bathroom door, who leaves the toilet seat up, I mean, the most – but they’re – they’re our family and we – we have the most amazing neighbors and we know that we can call on each other for anything. We all know how to get in each other’s homes and it’s – if – if something happens, I know how to get people’s pets and load them in my truck and take off again, but I’ve learned that in times of crises, my family is tough and we can pull together and we can get through it without whining or griping at each other and the same with my neighbors. My neighbors are tough. There’s nobody else that I would want to go through a disaster with than the people that I went through it. I’ve learned that we’re survivors. I had people telling me, “Oh, my gosh. Poor you. You’ve gone through all of this,” and I’m like “Are you kidding? I didn’t lose my homes. I’ve had this amazing experience with my neighbors. I’ve seen a community come together. I’m blessed.”
KUT News: Debbie, you said that you – so you didn’t get to live in your home, you had to live with these neighbors…
KUT News: Because why?
Opdahl: Well, it was – we didn’t have any power and so it was hot. My husband never left. He would never leave, but Casey, my 16-year-old and I, we kept going back across and we’d shower and would – we had our cats over there, so I didn’t want to leave that totally to my neighbor across, so we – we spent the first night – we went back home and the bad night, we stayed at my neighbors when it was burning. Then the second night, we stayed in our home with no air conditioning and then the third night we went back over and stayed with my neighbors just to clean up and sleep in the air conditioning and get our pets and bring them back home. We brought them back home across the riverbed. We were taking the golf cart – golf cart back and forth across the riverbed, so we loaded up all the pets because we couldn’t – we still couldn’t legally get into the subdivision.
KUT News: So, on the fourth night, you were back home?
Opdahl: Yes. Actually, the second night and then we…
KUT News: Yeah.
Opdahl: Yeah. Yeah, so…
KUT News: Fourth night you were home.
Opdahl: Fourth night we were home and we probably…
KUT News: For good?
Opdahl: Yes. I think we got power that day as well.
KUT News: I was – that was my next question.
KUT News: So there was only one golf cart?
Opdahl: No, there were two golf carts and they – they – we – we couldn’t have done it without having the golf carts because we couldn’t have carried – our subdivision is small, but we couldn’t have carried the buckets of water from the hot tubs to all the different fires, so that was good. I mean, we could have used our vehicles. My husband’s trucks were still there, but the golf carts, you could get them like across the field and up – and it’s – it’s – the – the first firefighters that showed up at our property, the next day, Monday, Labor Day, were form Oak Hill and they were – they commented that fighting fires in an environment such as ours, because there were lots of canyons and there’s big fields full of cactus and you know, it’s – it’s hard for the city trucks to fight those kinds of fires because they’re used to fighting house fires or fires – grass fires that are in a little subdivision, so be able to fight the fires over the bluff and into the cove were difficult.
That’s what we were concerned about was the fires jumped this cove and there’s a big bluff that’s probably, oh, 50 feet tall and if the brush and trees down below had caught fire, those would – we wouldn’t have been able to save our homes and so that’s what my husband was trying to do was keep this big deck on the one end by the cove from catching on fire because if it had caught on fire, then it would have spread all along the bluff and all of the homes that are up on the bluff would have – would have burned as well. Instead what it did was it split and it went on the back half of the subdivision that’s – where the houses aren’t on the lake side. We have a lake. They aren’t on the lake side, they’re just on the flat area. So…
KUT News: So you can’t see all of your houses in the subdivision because they’re on both side of the bluff?
Opdahl: On our subdivision, they’re on – on the – I mean, one side of the subdivision, there’s a bluff and all the homes on that side face the Perdinalis River and then on the back side of the subdivision, no, it’s just flat back there, so…
KUT News: So you all were busy going up and down with the golf carts looking for smoke or for fire?
Opdahl: Well, the bad night, you know, they were just – I mean, Chris – Chris talked to be about flames just racing past him, I mean, right in front of him. The fire split and went right in front of him and he just talked about like these big huge – bigger than snowflake pieces of ash that were just raining down everywhere and – and, you know, when a neighbor’s house would catch on fire, I mean, by the time – one neighbor in particular, by the time his home caught on fire, and they got back over there, there was nothing they could do to save it with – not with buckets of water from the hot tub and it burned completely. The fire got so hot, we were going to help – I was going to help one neighbor sift through stuff, but the fires got so hot that even the copper pipe melted, appliances melted, everything was fused. You know, she was wanting to look for jewelry, but it all just was like a big blob of molten rock and metal and so, it was an intense fire.
I have another cute story. In the next subdivision, my neighbors were out of town and they had asked some college kids to come stay at their house. This was before they even knew about the fire. So, these college kids that don’t even live out in our subdivision, they – the fires – the fires started coming closer and closer, and so what they did was they emptied all the beer all of the refrigerator that was out on the deck and carried the refrigerator into the front yard, away from all the trees, and took all what they thought were like valuables like picture books and – or photo albums and put them in the refrigerator and closed it down, because by that time, they were trapped in the subdivision. They couldn’t get out and so they – they put everything in this refrigerator hoping that, you know, it would keep it safe from the fire and – as luck would have it, those neighbors didn’t lose their home, although several people, literally right beside them, several homes were gone. I thought that was very innovative.
KUT News: Yes and so you could – they could – they couldn’t leave. If they left they couldn’t get back. Is that why they –
Opdahl: They couldn’t leave because of the flames.
KUT News: Just because of the flames. There were people trapped that could not get out?
KUT News: Like a significant number in your neighborhood?
Opdahl: Well, our neighborhood’s not that big. It probably only has 35 – 30 or 35 houses in our neighborhood and then the next neighborhood, they probably have 30 and – and these neighborhoods are side-by-side. They’re only separated by a cove that’s usually full of water. That neighborhood lost 10 to 12 homes. Our neighborhood lost 10. So, yes, if you didn’t get out at the beginning, then the flames would have kept you from – from getting out.
KUT News: So what’s the name of your neighborhood and the adjoining neighborhood?
Opdahl: Ours is called Paleface Lake Country Estates and I don’t know the name. I don’t think the other neighborhood has a name. It’s – when I’ve asked them – they don’t have a sign up at their neighborhood. So, they used – it all used to be part of the Paleface Ranch and – many years ago. It was all subdivided and made into different home – or subdivisions.
KUT News: So, you’re helping rebuild other neighbors?
Opdahl: We are helping. Yeah, I mean, we are. We’re helping – my husband’s a builder and so he goes over on weekends when he’s not working and helps one neighbor – one neighbor frame. They’re all going – they’re all going at different paces. You know, some neighbors need help, some neighbors don’t. Some neighbors are contract – have the money to contract – or the insurance to contract it completely out. The neighborhood is helping – he was one that didn’t have insurance that’s relying on the church groups to try to help him move forward and, you know, they get to a certain point and they can’t go any – like, right now, they’re waiting on windows. So, until they get the windows delivered, they can’t go any further, so he’s – he’s just building his home in stages?
KUT News: Is everybody rebuilding?
Opdahl: Everybody in our subdivision is rebuilding. In the next subdivision, I think there’s a couple of people that – that are not.
KUT News: I can’t believe water from hot tubs and swimming pools can save so many houses. How many houses did you say?
Opdahl: Well, and I mean, again, it was just because we – Chris kept this one big – a big wooden deck. It must – I mean, it might have 100 feet of wood in it and its posts reached over down into this canyon that was burning so what our logic – what our thinking is is by keeping that big wooden deck from burning and then the post that went down into the canyon from burning, that kept all of the – you know, that kept the fire from spreading where we wouldn’t have been able to reach it, which was over this big bluff. I mean, that – that – that’s our logic. That’s our thinking. So, I don’t know.
KUT News: And that’s a lot of water to – to douse out.
Opdahl: Yeah, I mean, they – they had some – well, they used them all. They had like a few fire extinguishers, but those were gone in moments and so, right that is a lot of water and they had shovels that they bang – you know, they’d kick the ash off and, you know, try to keep it from…
KUT News: But they’d also – they were dousing that deck…
Opdahl: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
KUT News: Just with buckets – five gallon buckets. Unbelievable.
KUT News: I saw your pictures.
Opdahl: Did you see my pictures? Yeah, it – it really brings it all home and now if you drive out there, it’s – it’s so interesting because it’s unbelievably green. There’s just – and the grass is probably knee high all the way, but there’s these burned stumps, thousands, thousands of burned trees. I can’t even estimate how many burned trees after you turn off 71 and go down Paleface Ranch Road toward our subdivision, but here’s this beautiful grass and these lovely wildflowers that are just prolific this year and burned stumps. It’s – it’s a very interesting contrast.
KUT News: Are there people that are re-seeding and…
Opdahl: Yeah, yeah, a lot – yeah, well and Grace Outreach, one of the churches out there, they worked with a group. We got free trees on Saturday. Everybody could have – everybody that showed up could have six trees that had lost trees in the fire and so, you know, so that’s nice, but sort of the logic is if you’re thinking about conserving water, you know, obviously you want to get something that’s drought tolerant. I don’t know.
KUT News: Is there anything from your notes you’d like to add? Take your time.
Opdahl: I don’t think so. We’ve all thought about what we can do to make our homes safer and I will tell you that I still have a burn bag packed with jewelry and some pictures that my mother painted and some photo albums, even though there’s probably no danger of fire right now, we’ve had so much moisture. The lake still doesn’t have any water in it where we are, but all of my neighbors – I would wager that they all still have a burn bag backed and if any of us go out of town, then we know where that burn bag is and so we can go get our neighbor’s precious belongings. But we’ve all – we’ve all thought about clearing brush away from our homes and, you know, in our case, even if you had hoses where – laid out where they could reach around, since we require electricity for our – to pump our water, that’s – that’s not really a solution. We’ve tried to replenish our fire – different supplies. We’ve gotten more buckets. We actually – in our neighborhood, we bought a fire truck, so –
KUT News: Wonderful.
Opdahl: So we have our very own fire truck and we’re all going to go to training on how to pump the water out of our fire truck. So, one of our neighbors generously purchased this. It’s just a great big red fire truck, just like you see in the books.
KUT News: Do you have a fire hydrant or where would the…
Opdahl: No, no, but it has a – no we don’t have a fire hydrant. It has a thousand gallon tank and then we also fitted our subdivision water well where we can draw water out of it, so – and then a bunch of neighbors bought 200 gallon tanks and we filled those with water and just have them sitting around the neighborhood so that we can go draw water from those as well.
KUT News: So, you’re going to be ready?
Opdahl: We are going to be ready.
KUT News: Do you mind telling that story one more time about Chris that – that was so funny, about his – his comment.
Opdahl: Okay, my – my husband’s Norwegian and he’s very taciturn and he – and another neighbor were standing on a hundred foot square wooden deck that they were trying to keep from burning because they thought that if it caught fire it might make the flames spread so quickly it would burn the rest of the homes along the bluff. So, Jeff and Chris are standing there and huge ashes and chunks of trees are raining down on the deck and they’re like shoveling them off with the shovel and pouring water on them and trying to keep the deck from catching on fire and Jeff just said it’s just this insane moment and it’s – you know, everybody’s heart’s racing a hundred miles an hour and Chris – my taciturn husband just looks at Jeff and laughs and says, “This is some stuff, huh.” You know, which, if you know my husband, that’s high hilarity for him, you know, he’s – he’s very reserved.
KUT News: And when you were first – at the first moments of knowing there was fire, when you got the phone call from your daughter, where were you?
Opdahl: We were at a woman named Susie Fowler’s. She lives on Highway 71 and she’s a potter. She was having a house concert. We were drinking wine and listening to a band play. It was sort of like Rome and Nero fiddling in the fires. Everybody – and this poor band, I can’t remember their name right now, but we’re all racing in and out of the house taking phone calls and they – they kept saying, “Should we be worried? Should we leave?” and really that as two miles away from the fire and sadly, because Susie told us, “Well, go get Casey, your daughter, and come back.” Sadly, she ended up losing her home and her studio and all of her beautiful work. So…
KUT News: The place you’re in?
Opdahl: The place we were in that we thought we were safe, it ended up burning to the ground. So, it – it was just a huge fire and – and these are people – you know, theses are our friends and neighbors. We’ve lived in this community for over 30 years and it was just heartbreaking and heart wrenching to see people that we consider family, lose everything and – and then be – and the people that lost everything, their homes are burnt to the ground and they’re worried about other people. That was – that’s just – I’m – I just continue to be astonished at the goodness of people.
KUT News: And you were two miles away, so you couldn’t see it from there and then you moved to two different other places and the third place you could see.
Opdahl: Right, the third place, yes. When we first left, we were all just so panicky. We didn’t exactly know what to do, so there were, I think three or four of us in this caravan and we – we – went up 71 and – and just tried to find some place that was safe. You could see the fire. You could see the – the smoke was just huge. It was – if you’ve ever seen Gone with the Wind and Atlanta burning, the flames were like that and the smoke – it was just amazing and so finally, though, I needed to get back closer to my husband and so we – we – we ultimately ended up driving back where we were just right across the riverbed from our home. So, maybe 300 yards and there’s a little area there we could stand and watch, but you couldn’t see. It was so smoky. Every once in a while, the smoke would clear and you could see if a home was still standing or not, but many times you couldn’t see.
KUT News: Well, Debbie, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Opdahl: No, I don’t think so. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell my story.
KUT News: Well, thank you. It’s March 19th, 2012, and Debbie could you say, one more time, your name and where – the subdivision you live in?
Opdahl: My name is Debbie Opdahl and I live in Spicewood, Texas in the Paleface Lake Country Estates subdivision.
KUT News: Thank you so much.