Leah Bystrom and Austin Stitzer
On April 23, 2012 Leah Bystrom and Austin Stitzer spoke with KUT News about their experiences during the Central Texas Wildires.
Bystrom: Okay, well initially I became aware of the fire probably the Saturday before Labor Day. My brother who lived in Smithville had been evacuated so, I live in South Austin so he moved, with his daughter, in with me temporarily while he tried to figure out sort of what was going on. There was very little word at the time. There was no threat. I volunteer at the Capital of Texas Zoo, which is in Cedar Creek, which is a lot closer to Austin. So there was really no word about it threatening anybody I knew further at that point, or the zoo until that Labor Day when the curator Michael Hicks called me and asked me if I could come out and help evacuate the animals for what they, I guess it was called the Union Chapel fire. He was just concerned that the fire was getting really, really close and so he was wondering if I could volunteer my truck and my time to come out there and help with the animals.
KUT News: So what time did you get out there and where there a bunch of other volunteers there?
Bystrom: There were. I believe it was about one or two o’clock in the afternoon at that point I hadn’t really watched the news or really seen what was going on because a lot of what I saw was – I guess it was the Steiner Ranch fires or the one up north, so that was getting a lot of the airplay as far as the news so I wasn’t really aware of what was going on in Smithville and Bastrop, so when I first started driving out there on 71 heading east – that was when I first saw just all of the huge black billowing smoke. I had not seen the images on TV or anything so that was very, very frightening for me to be driving towards it rather than, my instinct would be to drive away from it. So, I really, at that time, had no idea that it was that close to the zoo I thought that surely it was Smithville area still maybe Bastrop. I was not aware that the fire had- it was staring in different areas so this was like a Union Chapel fire which is right there but the fire station that was sort of on the same road that the zoo is on. When I got there actually, I had called Austin and asked him- because he also had a truck, one, he’s a veterinarian he had volunteered at the zoo before with me, and I’ve been volunteering out there for like 10 years. How long has it been?
Stitzer: For me?
Stitzer: Since the summer.
Bystrom: Yeah, since the summer.
Stitzer: Like six or eight months.
Bystrom: Yeah, so he came out there and I was calling really anybody that I knew with a truck because I just – the volunteerism I do is one day a week, and so I didn’t really know how many volunteers were there, but when I got there, there was 25 people there with their trucks, and like Texas disposal systems had donated these trailers and stuff, so that we could move – so it was really awesome and very comforting to know that there was that many people there, willing to like help get the animals out, and oddly enough there were a lot or people, or not a lot but at least a few there, even their own homes were in danger but yet they were there to help with animals, and they hadn’t truly evacuated their own homes and gotten all their stuff out but as I was driving in, there was fire like along, not like right next to the road, but there was fire like right there clearly that could be seen and I thought: They should have these roads closed, this shouldn’t – there shouldn’t be – we shouldn’t be allowed to go like right here, but people were still trying to go their things out of the their home and stuff.
KUT News: What road is it?
Bystrom: This is Pope Bend Road, and so I turned right there and then there is – as you go down the road – because the zoo is sort of nestled back along this road – its not like 71 frontage stuff – so and there’s all these homes long the way and you see these people trying to get all of these things out of the home and most of the traffic when I was heading in was westbound towards Austin and the only ones going eastbound towards Bastrop were people with people with trailers and stuff I guess trying to get their horses and all of the things they could out. So showed up there and, there was just a lot of people there that were getting stuff together and we were just sort of like trying to figure out like what to do first sort of thing and Michael, the curator, there was there and we were taking the small animals first the reptiles and stuff like that and just getting them all I guess in queue to be able to be ready to go because we didn’t want to like evacuate the animals unless we had to.
KUT News: Did you have enough cages for all these animals?
Bystrom: Mm-hm, oh yes, there was – there because he, he keeps a lot – he has a storage area with all the carries and stuff like that the only thing that was of a little concern was how to transport. There’s the tigers, lions – there’s bears and so that was of concern, that, that’s was why we need like more trailers and stuff like that so that’s was why Texas disposal systems – but there was others there were other trailers there but the actually getting them into cages that would move them was, were, quite a quandary on how to do that.
KUT News: So how did Michael get the word out?
Bystrom: He had called like me and a couple of other people but people just showed it was, it was there – volunteers had just like shown up there it’s like the they knew what needed to be done and some people had been like, in Waco and heard what was going on, and they just knew that, that, because – there are volunteers we’ve all been doing it for a long time together we like to have Christmas parties they, like we do all these things together it really is like a family and so it’s just you everyone just showed up. Michael had called me, and a couple of other people, but other than that – and I don’t know how, how, it happened but someone – a family had actually shown up there to tour the zoo at the time. It was kind of funny a comic relief right in the middle of everything hectic but –
KUT News: Did they get a tour?
Bystrom: No we said, “Uh, not now, but if you can carry this animal –” No, just kidding.
KUT News: So, Austin, when did you get there?
Stitzer: I got there about the same time. I, my experience was little different sort of live in my own little bubble. So, I came from Dallas also, and when I showed up – I got the text and was like, “Absolutely,” and I was in the airport actually looking at the news, and it was on the news and for some reason my little world – what I see on the news versus my life is two different worlds you now and even through its right down the street it didn’t hit me till I was driving down 71 looking at this huge plume of smoke. People on the side of the road and help donations signs and really it sort of all struck me I was sort of – it was my first sort of whoa this is like right next to the airport. This is serious and then you – then you bring it back to my personal life, where I’m going: the zoo, the volunteers at the zoo, all these people. And then I live out towards Dripping – there’s a fire north of my house and I’m going, “Oh my God, my house, my kids, my neighbors, my –” and that’s when it really got creepy for me, I was like: wow it’s time, time to go to work kind of thing.
KUT News: So you went to the zoo instead of your home right?
KUT News: And what about your home had it –
Stitzer: Home was fine, the fire I think came closest was five, seven miles. Yeah, but trust me, I was talking to my neighbors all, texting them every once in a while where’s it at or a quick call, “Hey is my house safe? What’s going on?” I have a child who wasn’t home at the time – thank God – so that took a little stress off me there and I was able to focus more on the zoo and get that going.
KUT News: So you were in the Dallas airport or in the Austin…
Stitzer: No, I was in the Austin airport – yeah, they had texted me just as I, as I came back home, and so I didn’t even go home, I actually I waited a couple hours in the airport and I just drove out.
KUT News: And what’d you see when you first got there?
Stitzer: Pretty much Leah described it perfectly. There’s a lot of movement, lot of people. Mike was definitely handling the situation – trying to handle it then best we could. You sort of get tunnel vision. I was more worried about the animals, and it’s a really – it’s tricky situation because you don’t want to stress the animals out if you don’t have to, the same breath, with life and death sometimes you have to so you wait to the last second to really – and the way you organize the animals too, the more stressful ones you might put a cage in their enclosure, and just let them get used to it for a little bit, meanwhile your moving other animals so there’s a lot to think about and Mike did really well with that. Ryan also helped out a lot too with the organization.
KUT News: Did you see the fires approaching?
Stitzer: Oh my God, driving in… I actually I – didn’t show it, but I was more worried than most because – driving in you, literally, I mean were talking not even a quarter of a mile away.
Bystrom: You see he had – Mike Hicks had send scouts out, would send scouts out to see how close the fire was getting to see how much time he had and one of the times that he sent scouts Austin was one of the scouts and Austin’s calling me – well I called him – to kind of see like what’s going on, what – where is the fire. And the way he’s telling me it’s just, like, “Okay the fire is here. Mike is out of the truck and he’s fighting the fire himself.” Okay now I was – always scared. I thought I would be a lot braver in such scenarios but, at that point, when Austin was on the phone sort of telling me, giving me the play-by-play of, that he and Ryan South were out of the truck, and they were with a shovel and a garden hose and this old man trying to help him save his house –
I just lost it, I said: no, I cannot, I have two boys. And literally it’s like, I still remember this smoke that was coming down Jenkins Road. It was literally to me like, this gray claw because that’s the way it was shaped. It was like this claw that was just stretching out, and just coming toward – and I was just looking going: I-the-this is, this is crazy he’s – this man is trying to fight these fires and I’ve just got to go and I just – I tucked tail and was like: I can’t. I did-I helped get the animals in queue and I’m not going to die over – I just can’t, I don’t have it; I don’t have it inside of me to do.
KUT News: So how long were you there?
Bystrom: I was there probably for about, I guess it was about an hour and a half – two hours initially and then I left. I mean I was just freaked out. I mean I – talking to him on the phone, just the thought of my friend Michael Hicks is like a – my sons love him. We volunteer there on Sundays. It’s a family thing – I don’t go to church, I go and volunteer at the zoo. And it was just too much, it was just too scary. And I was like, people, it’s their instinct to run, not to stay here, and I love the animals, I really want to – and we had already like seen a bunch, a bunch of the animals go, like made sure they were in transit or whatever, is – I was like: okay good deed done – I’m out, so I got down the road.
KUT News: It’s okay.
Bystrom: About – I’d left. And I was gone probably about another – about 45 minutes and then Michael called me back and was like, “Leah, I need you.” I’m like, “No, no! No way,” and he said, “No, I need you to go and get the tranquilizers in Austin. I need you to go pick them up to make sure that we have enough for the cats and the bears and everything like that, and just bring it back.” So it was good in that I left and I could, it wasn’t a loss of time as far as getting anything done. I needed to go get the tranquilizers, so and I was shaking my head like: I cannot believe I am doing this, I cannot I believe I’m doing this – I’m going back. Because I mean when I left there I was just like: Oh no I did a good deed and that’s – common sense its telling me to go and that’s just it. I helped some animals and I got to go. And then so, when I came back with the tranquilizer and Austin never left I was just like, “Leave, just leave! You gotta just leave! This is crazy! This is crazy!”
Stitzer: She still doesn’t know what happened. She hopefully never will.
Bystrom: And – actually no one left but me. I was the only, I was the only coward there. But, so when I came back it was an even more ominous scene. I was like: whoa, I mean, now there’s these – there’s this helicopter that was literally in the adjacent property, it was just right there and it was just this thump, thump, thump in my chest, and I was just like – and before I had been like going: it’s time to go guys, it’s time to go, it’s time to go. That’s all I could say. It was like I couldn’t get anything out of my head, but this time I swore when I came back I was going to be more reserved, wasn’t going to be freaking anybody out, because it seemed that – Well, I was the only one saying anything. I was the only one voicing that I was scared. Everybody else was just like worker ants. They’re just doing it, and I’m the only one going, “Hey, it’s time to go! We got some – let’s just go! Let’s just go!” And everyone looking at me like: just calm down.
But when I got back that helicopter just being right there, and it would just leave and carry the water, and then it would come back, and I swear I could just touch the helicopter it was just like – and the blades just like – and I was like: yhis must be what it was like in-in Vietnam, just be like, where you just got all this smoke around you, and there’s – this fire is so close. The fire was like less than a mile down the road.
Stitzer: It was less than that; I mean it was right there.
Bystrom: It was crazy. It’s like: we shouldn’t be there, we shouldn’t be here, we should just be going now.
KUT News: And there was a reservoir or something?
Bystrom: Yeah, the neighbors had a tank.
Bystrom: A water tank, so the helicopters were using that. And I felt comforted that at least this helicopter knows I’m here, because my second time back I couldn’t get in they closed that road down, so I had to go through the south end and there was a cop there at the time and I thought, “Oh don’t let me in, don’t let me in, just please, just say no, just turn around, he won’t let me in.” So I said, “I’m here to evacuate the zoo, and he moves the barricade.” And I’m like, “No don’t let me in! Don’t! It’s bad! You shouldn’t let me go!” So, but he did, and so I brought the tranquilizer.
But, and then at that time I’m like: I am going to be so quiet, I’m just going to do – and I got a bunch of the animals food, then I was just moving and helping with the wallabies, and helping. And Bobbi Colorado was there getting all the birds, and the reptile person was there. And they were getting the reptiles and Austin’s with Michael looking over the animals, and trying to figure the – what to do with the – Which animals? Which one’s next? How are we going to do this? How are we going to do it?
And so, and I’m just doing the little odds and ends things, you know, and then its just like that smoke was still just coming down the road, coming down the road and it was – and it was just like: Michael, okay now it’s time to go. Its – now Michael. He’s like, “Leah, it’s fine. Just go.” And he’s like, “I’ll be fine.” And I was like: I didn’t care about anything other than like – and there’s this ringing of the phone in the background, it’s the police – the fire department like saying, “You guys need to leave. Yeah you need to go. You need to go.” And then Michael is just like there and I’m like, “Michael, now it’s time to go.” Like, I felt like this was enough time. We got a lot of the animals. They’re all – as much as we can, and just like, “Leah just, just go ahead and go. Leah, just go,” and then I was just like, “I can’t wait anymore,” like I was just so – I was just so scared, I was just like – but I didn’t, I didn’t want to leave my friend behind.
So anyway, as I was leaving they had like – this is so sad – but they had given me these two birds. Okay, well I don’t really – I mostly do the construction stuff at the zoo. I don’t have a lot of animal interaction. But they like loaded me up with these two birds in my truck and, and kind of like Clarisse in Silence Of The Lambs, I’m like: at least I have these two birds. And as I was leaving the two of the scouts who were watching the fire had like come back to give a report, and – it was Ryan and Austin actually, so I said, “Hey, let’s just go knock Michael out. I’m just going to knock him out and you –”
Stitzer: She was convinced Michael would die in the fire fighting it for his animals.
Bystrom: I just knew it; I said, “He’s going to stay there with those animals.”
Stitzer: She kept saying that again, and again, and again.
Bystrom: He’s going to stay there, he’s going to die at that zoo, he will not leave unless every animal at that zoo is out. I could see it in his face, I knew it and I – no matter what I said, no matter what, no matter how close that damn fire was he was not going to leave one single animal there, and I was just like, “Listen we’re just – we’re just going to go knock him out. You guys talk to him, and I’m going to jump behind him, and I’m going to choke him out, and y’all help me carry him.” and then Ryan’s like, “Leah, just – Just go, Leah. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine. He’s not leaving.” And I was like, “No, don’t say that.” And he was like, “Those birds you have in your truck, Do how rare they are? There’s only a thousand of them in existence in the whole world, and you – there’s only four of them in the United States and you have two of them. You need to go and take good care of those birds.” And this is what you do, this is how you take care of them, and don’t worry about it. So I was like: okay, fine. And I got in my truck and was like: bah! I was just – flood of tears, because I knew that that was the end of my friend’s zoo and everything he worked for, and that was going to be the end of him because he was like the captain on a ship he just wasn’t going to leave.
KUT News: What kind of birds were these?
Bystrom: They were called Helmet Curassows. They’re, they’re just like these, there just – they’re some kind of game bird from Africa so, but actually the female just laid her first egg three days ago its was so – it’s so awesome!
KUT News: Look what you did.
Bystrom: Like yay!
KUT News: You had something to do with that.
Bystrom: Yeah so that was exciting to…
KUT News: So you took them back to Austin?
Bystrom: Yeah, I just, and I just, I just left things there the way I thought, they know – and he was like, “Leah I, I promise you I’m going to leave. I promise you I’m going to leave,” so, as the night progressed, I didn’t want to bother him, he was busy, but I was calling various people. Of course, no response, and on the news, it was just so limited, that I was on Facebook trying to find out any information. And then so many things were scary on Facebook. It was like: it’s gone to this, it’s gone to that. And of course there were inaccuracies and untruths and stuff, but – and I didn’t know to say, what was real and what wasn’t. So I tried not to call, and he promised me that he would call before he went to bed, and then he didn’t and I just knew – I just knew. I was like: I know my friend. I don’t want to know now.
KUT News: Where you able to – you weren’t able to get in touch with Austin?
Bystrom: Yes, but he had left. You had left at about six o’clock, after – he left with him, the left with Michael, they left the zoo.
KUT News: But you didn’t know this right?
Bystrom: I did know that, I did know, and if there’s, and I said, “Are there any animals left?” Yes, they – he went back. Then he told you guys that it’s fine, he’s good now.
Stitzer: She was convinced it was the only way that we got her to leave, was to convince her that he wasn’t going to stay.
Bystrom: But he’s going to go back, he’s going to make sure every animal is gone, I know it, and then he didn’t return my phone calls or my texts. I was just like that’s it, I knew it. And I couldn’t sleep, believe it or not. I was exhausted. My brother was at my house, I was, his home had just – unbeknownst to him at the time – he didn’t know the condition of this house, and so, I can’t sleep, I’m watching Channel 8 News, and well who’s on TV but Michael Hicks and Ryan South, and they’re with – they show them with a hose, Michael with a hose and there is literally a wall of fire all around him.
KUT News: Was it live footage?
Bystrom: Yes it was live, Channel 8 was there – no.
Bystrom: It wasn’t live at the time, it had been shot earlier that day, and I just thought, you see –
Stitzer: She was talking to me on the phone at the same time.
Bystrom: That’s when I left, when he told me that he was out with a hose, I said, “No you can’t fight a fire, fire, a wildfire with a hose and a shovel,” and they showed Ryan like holding a hat to his face and like, oh it was just crazy, and I was just like, and I just started crying and I was like: see I know, that’s how I know he’s not alive, I just know that he was going to fight it and fight it and like –
Stitzer: And he was just like: this is not what to do.
Bystrom: They said, “Do not do what these men are doing.” That’s literally what they were saying – see this, like do not.
Stitzer: And I’m sitting off camera view on my cell phone saying, “We’re fine. Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fine.
Bystrom: “Everything’s fine,” he’s telling me, “everything’s fine.”
Stitzer: She’s like, “Leave right now.” We’re like, “Okay, we’ll leave in a little bit. Don’t worry.”
KUT News: So you were in the scouting party with Michael, and –
Stitzer: Every 20-30 minutes. I mean, that’s – the fire moves so fast. It was, it was – I mean I, I – how many times do you see a fire like that? But I was in awe of Mother Nature. It went where it wanted, when it wanted and fast. That instant, actually, they were in the back of the house, and that’s when I was talking to Leah, and I’m going, “Okay, do I run back there and help them? Or do I stay up front?” And as I’m thinking this, literally on the other side of the house, and maybe I’m making an exaggeration, but I’m talking within 30 seconds. A tree that was normal – (snaps) up in flames. Hundred foot. I have pictures on my cell phone. At the same time it jumps the street, and lights the other tree on fire within minutes.
It was just so incredibly awesome to watch, but scary as hell. And there’s also people on this side with branches trying to knock it out. I was worried the fire would go in front of the house, and block them in the back, so I fought the fire on this side of the house, while they were on the other side of the house and watching it to come get them, so they wouldn’t be walled off and killed in the fire.
KUT News: The house, what’s the house?
Bystrom: The old man’s house.
Stitzer: It was just a random house, I mean it literally was – it was bizarre to me too. How it – the smells and the sounds as Leah was saying was just, just surreal, and you just sort of have to put that away, but how – One house would be just absolutely annihilated to the ground, just dust, and then the house next to it would be perfectly normal. It’s almost like the fire picked and choosed houses. It was, it was disturbing on so many different levels.
KUT News: You wanted to just go out to scout it to see how safe the zoo was, and you ran across this neighbor?
Stitzer: Right, right, and that’s where there was news crews. There was a bunch of people, and it was just – it was basically called the front line, but it was basically just right at the edge of the fire. And, and I, I honestly thank to this day Mike Fuallet because that was sorta like his toe in the sand, in the line, or the line in the sand for the zoo, see what I mean? I like to think he was doing it for the old man and the house, but who knows? Maybe it’s a little bit of both, and the animals. But, yeah, it turned into a scouting thing, because when I drove in it was disturbing, because little pockets would pop up, little flares would pop up and little ash would fly over, and it would just, light up like that. And you hear gunfire from houses from ammo left in houses, so there would be gunshots going off, and I’m looking at Ryan like, “How safe is this?” He’s like, “Probably not that safe.” “Alright, don’t tell, Leah. Whatever you do, don’t tell Leah,” and still, actually, I got yelled at last night for it. She’s finding out more about the situation.
Stitzer: But yeah, I mean, I was about 20 yards from a tree that just went straight up, and the heat and the smoke and I even had to move my truck for fear of my truck going up, it was amazing.
KUT News: Were you able to save that house?
Stitzer: Actually, yeah, I think in the end that house was saved.
Bystrom: The only one.
Stitzer: Now what’s amazing is that everything around it went down. Even jumped the street and started burning the field across the street and the trees across the street. But yeah, it was definitely –
KUT News: Okay so then after you worked on the house you went back to the zoo.
Stitzer: Oh absolutely, absolutely, we basically would go about and assess the situation ‘cause, I guess around two or three, I guess when Leah had few moments and sort of made me stop and realize, “Wait a second, what, I mean, what if we get locked in?” It went from, “I gotta save the animals,” to, “There’s like 25 people here that could die, what–” I mean, and they have kids and they have – and I’m going, “Oh, wow, well maybe we should start thinking about that. Maybe that might be a good idea.” So it was interesting, it was definitely fun, don’t recommend it.
KUT News: Definitely fun?
Stitzer: Yeah it was exciting, not fun, exciting.
KUT News: I mean so the fire was like right there?
Bystrom: Yeah like a – like a less than a half a mile, so it was –
Stitzer: It was crazy close.
Bystrom: Not that far that they had to go down the road it was just right, just right there. Of course I was unaware of that part about it. Because we, we had, had a little time there where the fire was really close and then the wind shifted. So it was like: okay now we – what I mean – okay, great, now, now it seems like we have an eternity, everything’s delayed back, and then all of the sudden now, now, now the story’s different, now it’s turned back towards us. And now it’s like: okay now it’s on again and now the – you see the smoke coming back in so.
Stitzer: Yeah it was scary.
Bystrom: And then –
Stitzer: I mean it was a wind thing. You just sit there and just wait and watch, and then, okay, it looks like it’s going away, and then the sudden wind change – it’s blowing towards us now.
Stitzer: You just go, and check it out, and then you come back, alright. And then you go check it out, and you come back and it became, in the end it became: okay animals first, but now let’s worry about the people.
Bystrom: Right and the helicopters initially it was like…
Bystrom: Come here, go there, now it’s like the helicopters like: come here just go right – the helicopter obviously was –
Bystrom: – aware of us, and was like he wasn’t like taking this bucket of water and taking it a few miles down the road no – he’s just going, just right there down the street and putting out the fire there.
Stitzer: And there was a lot, excuse me.
KUT News: Go ahead.
Stitzer: A lot of, I – I know the huge magnitude of fire, and since Austin was covered in fires, the police, the fire, everyone was really spread thin – and, and, and that was one of the true tragedies, and that’s just, it’s unavoidable, it going to happen in those extreme situations. But it was one of those things that – there were a lot of hero’s in my mind. You knew there was a lot of normal people doing abnormal things, and it was sort of a controlled chaos. And, and being on that front line it was, the average Joe standing next to the average Joe – and I’m sitting there with a branch beating off this thousand acre fire next to this other guy and it was – I, I guess the thinking about it later – I guess is what worried me the most is the fact that, there wasn’t a master plan. There wasn’t someone overseeing everything. You just can’t in those extreme situations, and – but also in the same breath, I got comfort from knowing there’s someone just as stupid as me out there beating a branch against a fire, so I don’t know, it was um, it was surreal.
KUT News: As a veterinarian, how were the animals? I mean, obviously they saw, they saw – I mean, my God, they had the helicopter noise. They had all of y’all out there, they could smell better than any of us, I mean, and see –
Stitzer: Just like anything else in life, they know more than we do, they knew exactly what was going on. What the norm – what I found fascinating is that I found it more than a personality issue than a species issue with animals, and that’s where I talked to Mike, because he knows his animals like the back of his hand, so I’m like: alright, what’s up with this one? “Well can be a little ornery.” “Alright, well, let’s, let’s approach it this way. What about this one?” “Oh, I can go hand feed that one.” I’m like, “Alright, that one’s going now,” and that’s where we worked really well side-to-side together kind of thing, with his knowledge.
But, they, they knew, and it was also interesting too because in my personality, a lot of animals know that we were helping them. So they were the easy one of course, we love them. And, and they would, they knew, “Hey I’d rather be you in this cage on that truck leaving than sitting in this scenario.” And then of course you also have the ones that naturally are just fight or flight, and they’re ready to go, too, and you just got to take a little extra care and love with those. But, it was definitely a chess match, and but the larger animals, too.
You’re going – oh my god, if – you want to avoid sedation if you don’t have to, is the fire going to come, and it’s a totally educated guessing game. And that’s why we did so many scout runs, saying, “Okay, do we have to load up this tranquilizer right now? Do we have to knock down this huge monster mammal and risk anesthesia? And risk moving? And risk people moving them – because they are going to be scared – or do we hold for another five, ten minutes, and see what the wind changes or see where we’re at with it? So, like I said it was at the time – at the time, I don’t know, everyone thinks differently, I mean, at the time in my mind – I’m not saying I was trained, because I mean, how can you be trained for that? But I just, I just think next step, next step, next step, and I think that keeps me away from the chaos, and so I’m just next-stepping it all day long. You’re just – what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?
Bystrom: But the animals weren’t like, like the way you would think that they would just be, trying to get out of their cages and –
KUT News: Pacing.
Bystrom: Right, pacing.
Bystrom: And, like, going like…
Stitzer: A few, a few were pacing of course but, you’re right, on the average, they knew, they knew it was bad they had that fear. They’re like, “Mmm, I don’t want to be here,” kind of thing they did –
KUT News: So they were kind of quiet huh?
Stitzer: Yeah, they did really well, actually, I think so.
Bystrom: I did I only saw like a couple that were – that – well, like animals that you don’t go, normally go into their exhibit. It, now there’s a human, and in their exhibit. They’re like, “Wait a minute, this is my territory.” I think it was more a function of that, but I wasn’t as, it wasn’t as chaotic as I definitely thought I would be.
KUT News: How many animals are there, and how many were evacuated?
Bystrom: There all, all the small animals, there’s, there’s about 500 animals, but some of them are like a lot of them are really small.
Stitzer: We’ve got probably like –
Bystrom: All, almost all them were birds. Bobbi Colorado got all the birds. Clay and Angie got all the reptiles and stuff. We got, like, he has these very rare, that, they’re endangered – he has some endangered animals, so all were taken to the warehouse of Ryan South. He has a sprinkler system company, and so an they were housed in Bastrop County, so we had the camel that was evacuated, so problem, so, I mean, so really what was –
Stitzer: We really got down to where we were really about to get in the deep stuff, the big animals.
Bystrom: The Kinkachus, the Kinkachus, the Coatimundis were taken.
Bystrom: No problem I mean the birds all the all the birds the, the…
KUT News: The kinka – what, can you say that again?
Bystrom: The Kinkachus?
KUT News: What are those?
Bystrom: Kinkachus – they’re just a South American animal, that – they’re very, they’re not very aggressive. I mean, they’re really sweet. I mean, Michael – well, they can be aggressive, but Michael – oh there small, they’re just, like, this big, and they have a fancy tail, so – and they just love Michael, and he – like Noah – they just all come to him. It’s just crazy so – that, that part was no problem.
Stitzer: So it worked out well. I mean, all points considering.
KUT News: So people just took them and took care of them?
Stitzer: Yeah, at the houses.
KUT News: There were places for them?
Stitzer: Yes, yes.
Bystrom: Mhm, mhm. Well, the volunteers at the zoo – like Clay is one of the volunteers, and he does a lot to care of the reptiles, and the other volunteers who take care so – Bobbi Colorado owns her own – she trains birds and stuff, she does birds like, birds for animal movies and stuff – she does the movies and stuff, so she’s pretty, actually pretty popular in Austin, or things in Austin for that. So she came and took all the parrots and everything, and go to all of them, so they had gone to little respective homes, and like the cats were already supposed to go to like Cameron Zoo – once they were tranquilized, go to Cameron Zoo in Waco, so that was already taken care of as far – but it just came to the point where for whatever reason that you now it just – it wasn’t necessary to evacuate they – it just –
Stitzer: The wind shifted.
Bystrom: Yeah, I mean, the wind shifted and –
Stitzer: It like escalated, escalated, escalated, and we got to the point where it’s alright it, its big time now what I mean and it was always a big time excuse me but to that next level, and as someone turned a switch, the wind died. The front – what I call the front which was right around the corner got under control. Talking to the fire people, and they were like, “Okay, we got that part under control.” So we had it designed where it – if we had to punch that panic button last second, we could get the big animals out, but it was to the point where we had to assess the stress of the animal versus the risk of the fire, and at that point, the risk of the fire went way down.
KUT News: What time was this?
Bystrom: I really don’t recall I mean it was just…
Stitzer: It was right before sunset, I remember that.
Bystrom: Because they had the guy, the airplane…
Stitzer: I was like it’s going to get dark soon.
Bystrom: The airplane with the retardant – the helicopter there – we say that the winds died, but not to negate the fact that these firefighters that are –
Stitzer: Oh, those poor guys. I mean, God bless them.
Bystrom: That are fighting the fire that’s probably, has a large part to do with it so.
Stitzer: Well we, we pulled up to one of the stations actually during one of the little scouting things and, an just, I mean the guys just was worn thin, I mean, the poor guy.
Bystrom: It had to have been six or seven at this point.
Bystrom: Six or seven, because I remember you guys had a late dinner and –
Stitzer: Yeah, McDonald’s was still open. We treated-
Bystrom: Yeah, six or seven maybe, it was, there was still enough light outside to do things.
Stitzer: Yeah and, thank God. I mean, thank God it didn’t make it there, and then sleeping – still, I mean, watching it spread that fast I’m going: one big wind, one ember. And that night, I actually got home, remember this, I got home and – In my neighborhood there was a brush fire in my neighbor’s back yard. I, and I ran over that, I was just; I’m like, not again.
Bystrom: It’s everywhere.
Stitzer: Oh it was awful, it was…
KUT News: So what was, what did you – you and Michael left at the same time.
Stitzer: We did. Well, he claims he left but yes.
KUT News: And so did you leave behind firefighters or? Or you just knew that the fire wasn’t –
Stitzer: Well no, no, no, trust me we, we – our last run, we actually drove through a lot of the burning areas which was, was very sad that absolutely, that was, that was the worst part.
Bystrom: Your last run meaning scouting run or last run getting out?
Stitzer: Yeah, scouting, seeing the people and the homes. It was wired.
KUT News: I can imagine, can’t imagine. So you weren’t – so you and Michael were the last to leave along with –
Stitzer: And Ryan. Yeah, there was, there was a handful of volunteers there, too, finishing up the odds and ends. And I think, I don’t – is that the night? I think we went to McDonalds afterwards actually, just to finally eat. You don’t eat for eight to ten hours, and all of the sudden you realize you’re hungry, what I mean.
KUT News: So what did you see that last run?
Stitzer: Just what the fire did and people. They – I mean it was – the smell I’ll never forget. It was different from like a normal campfire it was – it had the smell of things that shouldn’t be burning. And homes in ruins, and then homes not touched. It was just the weirdest thing. And trees burnt to the ground and trees normal. And people just sitting there just – they all just had blank faces. That’s what I’ll never forget. Just looking around. I try and make light of the situation at the time just to keep things light, and, and keep focused. And we try to say jokes and things, but there was about a half hour, 45 minutes where Ryan, Mike and I were just, just quiet, just driving around these neighborhoods looking around.
And we talked to people, because getting the facts is the hardest part to the whole situation, because no one knows the facts, because its spreading so randomly and differently. We’d ask one firefighter one things, and then I ask another person on the street another thing, and its two different stories of what the fire is doing. So we literally just have to go drive it to figure it out. And that’s what – Leah, kept calling like, “What’s going on?” I’m like, “I’m trying to figure it out, too. Slow down. It’s alright.”
And, that was the hardest part, and that’s where any – one lesson I did learn, any situation like that you at least, government wise, figure out how to control that better, have a better communication with the people, and when to evacuate, when not to evacuate, when to fight, when not to fight it. But I think it’s just the nature of the beast, you’re just going to have it.
So, it was, it was at the time, I joke and I think I separate myself from the situation, and later I think about it, and I’m like: whoa, I could have died. And I was laughing with, Leah – all through this I’m texting my parents, I texted my parents twice and like, “What are you doing? How’s your day?” I’m like, “Oh, I’m trying to help the zoo, save it from a wildfire.” They’re like, “Oh, that’s fantastic! Good job! Keep going!” And she’s sitting there laughing. What did you say? Something like the effect of, “Should have told him to get the hell out!” Parents should have told me to run or something.
Bystrom: Yeah, I was like: leave, just go.
KUT News: You were the parent.
Stitzer: Yeah, thank God, too. She got the common sense to, she – thank God. Because Ryan and Mike weren’t the best influences during the fire. So, they were fun though, they’re good people.
It was actually pretty amazing watching – like I said, you see, you see people on a normal day, street, but you put someone in crisis situation, and it’s a different scenario, and you see, you see who they really are and, Mike, Ryan, all the other volunteers, all the people in Bastrop for that matter – just really impressed me. How they came together, and how they fought together, and I mean, people were offering cages to us as – “What are you doing?” “Oh we’re over at the zoo trying to figure out –” “Do you need a cage? My animal’s safe what do you need?” And I’m like, “Well, your house is about to burn down.” And the substance of the community was – and the support of the community was inspiring.
Bystrom: And then even out of the fire, the Bastrop animal control had asked Michael to keep some of the animals there that they had found that – that they didn’t know where the homes were so that – there was like tortoises and bunnies and geese and stuff like that they couldn’t keep them at their facility, so Michael kept them at the zoo until they found their families – until they could find their families, or their families could come and reclaim them. So that was really cool, too, that not only did the zoo survive or whatever, but it also became a safe haven for animals that didn’t even live there.
KUT News: That is some story, so how many animals stayed would you say?
Bystrom: It was like –
Stitzer: Enough to evacuate fast if we had to. And they were the, they were the more difficult ones, the ones where, okay, we really are going to have to completely anesthetize, and the ones where the danger of moving them outweighed the danger of the fire. So it really pushed us to the, to the very sort of, I don’t – to the next level here, I’ll call it. So, and that’s why it worked out perfect the way everything died down the way it, well I wish it’d, I wish it never happened, but the, the timing of it worked out in our favor. That we were able to comfortably say, “Okay if we had to, we could do this, but right now we don’t have to, so let’s just wait and see.”
KUT News: It was really just the dangerous animals, right? Like the, the –
Bystrom: The lions, the tigers, the bears, and then – I think it was the bobcats – No, no. They even got the bobcats, yeah.
Stitzer: I think they got the bobcats.
Bystrom: So it was just like the really big animals at the end so –
Stitzer: Well, it’s pretty neat, the zoo, and the way the zoo is set up, too. And that’s the other thing I figured out. I’m so, you know, I’m so used to black-and-white domesticated animal versus wild animal – where the zoo, yes, they’re wild animals, and yes, they could turn on you in a second – just Mother Nature – they’re still very domesticated in a ways. They still have a great bond with Mike. A lot of those animals Mike raised by hand, so even if you can’t trust them 100 percent, they still have this relationship, this bond. It’s a lot easier to work with then a completely wild animal.
Bystrom: Yeah, yeah.
Stitzer: Per se, so I found that fascinating.
Bystrom: Ryan had that – he had acreage, I guess it was three acres or four acres, that he had out there in Bastrop County, so that was a luxury to have that. It wasn’t like the animals were sitting there in people’s homes. They were like a lot of the, the herd animals or hooves stock or the stuffed rail will go just to go and kind of walk around free, so I mean, like the camels, the same thing so –
Stitzer: What else was amazing, excuse me, was the support, and all the stuff we’re talking about now, to be honest with you, even today I’m thinking about it where I didn’t think about it as much at the time, whether it’s hotels taking people in – I mean, I’m standing next to Michael, he’s talking to other zoos and other zoos are like, “Heck yeah! Bring them on! Whatever you need.” Support from zoos, from, the people that gave us the trailers, the – it was, it was neat, it was neat watching the community come together.
KUT News: Which were the most agreeable animals to move that you evacuated?
Stitzer: The hungry ones. No, I’m just teasing.
Bystrom: Well, yeah, it’s probably – it’s like the kinkachus and the lemurs. They just, you know Michael – and the camel could have been a situation because it’s an adult male camel. They are known for being aggressive. That could have been a situation in and of itself. With Michael handling him, and it was just smooth – it was, it was like a man with his puppy dog. I mean the – there was no issues. There were just no issues. I mean, he’s just, the – there were just – I can’t really think of anything other than, like, the wallabies seemed to me to be a little freaked out. Like, no, they were like, “No we’re not, we’re not getting in this container. Not today.” So that’s the only ones that I saw that were like, “No, no, no, no,” but everything else was just kind of like, “Oh, where are we going? Okay, that’s alright. Let’s go.” Just kind of weird, from what I saw.
KUT News: What did you carry the camel in?
Bystrom: There’s a horse carrier that they had, that was available, so they just got some hay or whatever and kind of just walked him out like, “Oh walk over here –” Like, “Okay, hey, walk in here. Okay? Yeah.” And, “We’ll walk in here.” His name is Mo – and, “Okay, alright, Mo. Get in here. Okay, you stay in there, Mo. Oh okay, you’re going down the road Mo.” Mo’s like, “Okay.”
Stitzer: He did really good. Yeah, that’s the surprising part, when the animals we expected to have trouble with we didn’t. That was another blessing.
KUT News: So how did they – when did the animals get to come back?
Bystrom: The next day!
Stitzer: Next day.
Bystrom: They got the –
Stitzer: That’s what I was saying, after the moment it really got contained well.
KUT News: And everybody wanted them back in there –
Bystrom: Michael wanted – yes – he was so worried about – he’s like, “They get, they get stressed. They like being in their homes. They like staying in their homes, and they –” We all like familiarity, no one likes change, so he’s like, “I really –” He, he – so of course, he was in communications with all the fire officials and stuff, and, and Bastrop County and stuff, and he had to get the all clear for him to go ahead, and he got his all clear.
Stitzer: Well, they were letting people back on to.
Bystrom: No, not yet, not for him, they weren’t – they gave specific like for him. Because of the animals, but like around there, because they need to make certain fire lines.
Bystrom: Utility lines are not down, but for him, because there really wasn’t in the near like half-mile vicinity, that it was, threatening for him. Then the next day we just – no animals got hurt, nobody got hurt and its –
KUT News: So you went back out?
Bystrom: I went back out.
KUT News: With the birds?
Bystrom: With my birds, with my coveted birds.
Stitzer: That’s why we were – we still make jokes about that today – It is crazy, crazy – endangered species, we give it to Leah whose, whose running away.
Bystrom: I like did the most reckless thing there, but he had his – which are – that’s like – he’s kind of known around Texas and other places for being able to raise this fossa in captivity. I guess they’ve had some difficulty doing that, and so, so his fossa got returned, and just got put back in, and it was just no problem.
KUT News: And did you see any aftermath with the animals?
Stitzer: For the most part, no. I mean anything – it’s subtle, you know, and like anybody, if I’m going to lock you up and drive you away, and put you in a comfy home for a minute, and then put you back in a new comfy home a day later, for the most part they, they did pretty well. They did really well actually. Looking, once again, hindsight’s such a wonderful thing, I would expect a lot more issues and it all went off pretty good. Except for getting yelled at later, but that’s about it.
KUT News: Who’d you get yelled at?
Stitzer: Mama over there.
KUT News: Mama over here?
KUT News: So did you have to administer any veterinary care?
Stitzer: No, they all did really well. They all did really well.
KUT News: Amazing!
Stitzer: Yeah that’s the blessing, and that’s, kudos to the zoo, and kudos to Michael and Ryan and everybody over there.
KUT News: They must have learned a lot.
Stitzer: Oh, they always – how can you not? How can you not?
KUT News: But it’s like, you all did the right things. I mean, and got lucky with the wind and the fire.
Bystrom: Yeah, but I mean.
Stitzer: Defiantly luck.
Bystrom: It definitely makes you – Michael definitely immediately started saying, “Okay, now if this ever where to happen again –”
Bystrom: “That we need to make – have it to where the – it would be a, like a –” So he starts thinking of ways that we’ll –
Stitzer: Take it to the next, next –
Bystrom: The cats will be done immediately, maybe – and in a way that we won’t have to tranquilize, ‘cause, he didn’t want to have to – he would rather just – so maybe he could just, like, somehow train the cats, the bears, to have a, a some sort of thing where they can – enclosures were it would just be where he wouldn’t have to tranquilize them. Because you – when you start tranquilizing animals it becomes very serious. You have to monitor everything. You don’t just want to willy-nilly tranquillize an animal, so you start brainstorming about, “Okay, now we have to supply all the stuff we would need going forward,” and everything.
So it sort of sparked a whole new like, “Okay, now we need to think about this and this and this.” There was always a fire evacuation plan, but until it’s like right there, you plan it and you plan it, but then your like, “Okay, well we got lucky.” Because we got to practice it, truly practice the fire escape plan, and next time – if it were to ever happen, I’m sure as amazingly smooth as it went, I just know that next time it would just be like, “Oh, we’re all old hats at this. Come on. Bring it, bring it, fire.”
Stitzer: What I found fascinating too is, is in a crisis situation which, which, we were in, there’s no right answer, there’s no wrong answer, and to this day, I still – I over analyze everything – still analyze that, and my judgment on other people and other crisis situations has become so open-minded now. There’s no right answer, and it’s so easy for someone, states away, countries away, to point fingers and, and, and, and – judge people. When, really, at that moment, at that time, that was the right thing to do. And that gray area, I guess, is what I really thought about, and the more I thought about it the more I thought about it the more I was quite pleased and gracious on how it went. And because it could have gone south in so many ways with the blink of an eye in that fire. And we’re really fortunate, we’re really lucky to have things turn out the way they did.
KUT News: Anything else you’d like to add?
Stitzer: She was a lot braver than she pretended to be.
Bystrom: That was nice. Just that, I think it’s really – and maybe it’s what all communities do, that everybody comes together like that, but the way that people of Bastrop like sort of came together just when – like my, my brother, when my brother’s home burned down and he had – his neighbor died, and like he was – he had the neighbor that died, literally. So, he was the neighbor that had left and gone back, and he’s been in contact with their family, and he had never really even been like, that close before, but, like, all of their neighbors – it’s like, like they’re, they’re like – they’re so much closer now than they ever were before. And it’s, sort of the same thing. We always had a pretty cool volunteer little community, but now its just like – wow, there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other. And it’s just cool that I think that everyone in Bastrop just seems to have done that. Well, in Austin having all the benefits, and doing all the stuff for him, I just, I just think it’s awesome, and I think it – I don’t know – it renews my, my faith in people and stuff, and it, just it’s – I’m surprised that it happened to me. I’m not the person that I thought I was, as far as like, I thought I would be a lot more stoic in that situation, but I am definitely glad it happened, because I think it, in some ways it made me stinger.
Stitzer: I think you summed it up perfectly to be honest with you. The renewal of faith in people was definitely huge part for me. The community was outstanding. The communities around it is even more outstanding. I talk to people in different states and emails, “Are you alive? Are you okay? Do you guys need me to send anything?” And it’s just neat and, and – just amazed at everyone who fought the fire, and the, even the police and the fire – they did the best they could. They did a great job, and I don’t know. I agree with Leah, she summed it up so much better than I possibly could.