On July 12, 2012, Mary Mattia from Spicewood, Texas spoke with KUT News about her experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Mattia: Well, I was – on September 4, 2011, I had already started teaching in San Antonio, and it was my first year and I was nervous, but I started getting phone calls from my parents and they weren’t living at our family house in Spicewood. They were in Connecticut. I was the only one from my family in Texas. So, they were freaking out talking about fires and I hadn’t really heard of anything yet. So, I drove up from San Antonio to Spicewood and I was hearing all of this stuff on the news and it just sounded absurd that this was going on at my home and I didn’t know where exactly in Spicewood it was so…
KUT News: Did you – did you think – had anybody besides your family communicated with you? Were there any like emergency alerts or anything that you received?
Mattia: Yes, so my – there were no official emergency – sorry, there were no official emergency reports that I received or – or any information that I got officially, however, my boyfriend was – is a firefighter and he actually volunteered to go to the Pedernales fires and he had talked to the chief and the chief said he needed to give me a call and tell me to get my behind home and evacuate.
KUT News: So, when he said get your behind home, he meant come up from San Antonio and get your belongings and clear out your parent’s house?
Mattia: Right. I had – I had been in communication with – with my boyfriend at the time and my parents trying to figure out whether it was worth it for me to drive up, whether it was big enough, whether it was threatening and it turned out that really it was just the west side of the Pedernales River that the fire even touched, but I was literally – we are just across the river, just barely across, and just further south than us, it jumped the river, so there was a point when the chief made it really clear that we needed to – to pack up our – Pace Bend Road needed to get out.
KUT News: And did – did – are you aware of whether the firefighters came through Pace Bend Road and told people from house to house or did you just get the information because of your boyfriend?
Mattia: I am not aware if firefighters came and told people on Pace Bend Road. I have a friend whose aunt randomly also lives on Pace Bend and she was also told to evacuate.
KUT News: By whom?
Mattia: That is a very good question. My friend just told me, “My aunt’s evacuating. She’s in Spicewood. Are you there? What’s going on?” It was just – I mean, it was an emergency situation and so I just got the notification from my boyfriend and I trusted him. He was in the fire station down the street. Chief told him. I didn’t – I didn’t really wait around for anything else. I started to smell the smoke in – in our house and the wall of smoke on the other side of the river just looked like it kept getting closer and closer.
KUT News: So, describe to me what it felt like as you drove west on 71 and saw what was in front of you.
Mattia: I had never seen anything like what I saw on that day driving toward my house, toward a fire, when all the cars are coming your direction, away from this. It was literally a wall of smoke and I was driving down 71 and you saw the road and the trees and buildings on either side and then the horizon – the entire horizon was taken up by this creamy color of thick billowing smoke and it just – I remember being shocked when I saw it from a distance when I was driving in on Southwest Parkway and the closer I got, I was just – it literally felt like I was driving into the apocalypse. I know that sounds dramatic, but…
KUT News: Was your heart pumping, were you – were your hands shaking?
Mattia: Yeah, I was – I didn’t have anyone who I knew was going to be in Spicewood. I was the one from my family who could get everything we treasured out of this house. Everyone was going the opposite direction and I was driving toward this fire. I wasn’t even – I didn’t even know if I could get on to my street, so I was – I was shocked. I didn’t know who to call. I wanted to talk to someone, but I was the only one in the car and I was trying to snap pictures just because I couldn’t believe this was where my house was. My house was where all this smoke was coming from. That was my house and I didn’t know if it had been affected yet or – or whether the fire was still far enough away. It just looked so unreal and just too big to – for me to process.
KUT News: As you got closer, what did it look like what did it smell like, what did it sound like?
Mattia: As I got closer, I mean, the wall just continued to take up more and more of the horizon and you don’t – it’s easy to see things like this in movies and not be that shocked, but when you come across an emergency situation and in this case, a wildfire, in real life, your body doesn’t have any prior knowledge if you’re just an average person like me to respond to something like that and so my – my thoughts were – were racing. I – I didn’t know, “Is my street on fire? Is my house on fire? Will I be able to get in? If I got in –“ my mom had sent me this laundry list of things that she needed out of the house and she was – she was in Connecticut freaking out and constantly calling, but I couldn’t answer because by the time I got into my house, I could – it was already hazy in there and it was dead silence inside the house and I was the only one there and it was just filled with particles and I had to run around and collect these things that were supposed to be the only things we had left over if my house caught on fire and I went out – we have this deck that overlooks the Pedernales River and I went out and, I mean, of course you could see all the smoke moving from across the river and to actually watch it coming up into the air, this – this massive formation of thick smoke was awe-inspiring, but also I could hear – it was sort of like the sound of – of running water and every now and then you could hear a loud crack or pop, but that was only when it had gotten close enough and eventually the firefighters backed it up again. It was like a constant battle. Smoke would go down. Smoke would come back up. It’s another fire to the north. Another one would start in the south. The wind was awful that day and you’re just scared that – I mean, one little piece of wood or ash that would float up into the air would come across the river and land in front of your house and that would be the end of that.
KUT News: When you were packing up your house and you’re feeling this racing panic running through your body and your mind is racing and your mother’s texting you, did you at any point feel like,”Mom, you sent me into the face of a fire.”
Mattia: Well, I remember actually feeling – well, first of all, I did – I did have to tell my mom – I’m – “There’s a fire outside our window. You need to – I can’t talk to you right now. I have the list. Send me a text if you have anything to add, but I have to get going. I have to pack up a van full of our stuff.” But I also remember feeling like – I felt two things. First, “Thank god one of us was close enough to this that we could get here.” And, two, I – I was in charge of collecting the most – the list of the most important family belongings.
KUT News: What were some of those?
Mattia: There were – I mean, the things that – that everyone would collect like passports and certain documents and cards and – and Social Security cards and stuff like that and important life documents, but also I had to try to collect every family photo in the house. My parents were adamant about that and all of our old photo albums, so I just remember running around and grabbing whatever boxes or baskets I could, laundry baskets full of family photos – laundry baskets full of family photos and albums and my parents love artwork and my sister’s an incredible artist. So, she – she wanted me to collect some of my sister’s art and a couple pieces that were really meaningful to my family, pieces that they had held on to for a long time. So, I had – and my parents are world travelers, so we had stuff from all over the world, so I ended up having this minivan packed with important documents, family photos, sculptures from all over the world, pieces of art and I remember driving away thinking, “God where am I going to park this van? What am I going to do with this? If anyway breaks into this van, that’s like the biggest find you could ever have.”
KUT News: I mean, what was the communication like between you and your family, you know, had they said clearly to you, “You have to get out.” I mean, “Nothing is more important that you getting out safe.” Were they not as aware of how close it was as…
Mattia: They weren’t in the beginning. They were concerned for the house. They…
KUT News: Tell me…
Mattia: I’m sorry.
KUT News: They weren’t aware of it.
Mattia: My – my parents weren’t – like all of us, my parents weren’t aware in the beginning of the intensity of what was happening and the severity of the issue, but I do remember calling them a few times. I really wanted to make my family – my parents proud. I really wanted to get everything that they wanted me to get. I didn’t want to leave anything behind just in case our house was one of the unfortunates that got – that caught on fire and I remember calling my parents at one point, when I really started to smell the smoke in the house and the fire – the clouds – the smoke had just gotten ginormous on the other side of the river and I called my mom and I was like, “Mom, I – I’m – I’m freaking out here. I’m really trying to get this whole list. I don’t know if I can. The house is starting to get hot. I’m – I’m starting to smell things. It still looks – I mean, it still looks pretty far across the river, but I just don’t know. I don’t know anything. The TV’s not working. I don’t know what to do,” and I remember her saying at that point, “Mary, get out. Leave the house.” I mean, my – my parents wanted this stuff, sure, but I also really wanted to assure them that I could – I could save the day. I could get this stuff and I could get everything they wanted and wouldn’t leave anything behind and – because that’s all you have when something like that happens. Whatever you can collect is what are left with.
KUT News: Can you tell me your name and where you’re from?
Mattia: My name is from Mary Mattia and I’m from Spicewood, Texas.
KUT News: Being the only person there, can you describe for me what it looked like and – and what it sounded like as it approached and what you were feeling as you saw – saw that?
Mattia: So, when I…
KUT News: How long were you doing this process?
Mattia: I was trying to pack up our house for, gosh, my brain twists that time so much because it just so happens so rapidly because you can’t even really comprehend what’s happening, but probably for maybe an hour – an hour or so and actually my cousin had been living – had been living at our family’s home in Spicewood for a couple of months before she got on her own feet and she had left something really valuable. Like, I can’t remember what it was, but something she apparently had to have and for whatever reason that day, she couldn’t – she said she couldn’t be there. She was starting a new job. It was the first day or something. She didn’t – for whatever reason, she didn’t want to be there, but I remember calling her and I’m like, “Katie, you need to come. I don’t want to scare you, but this is a scary situation and I’m smelling – our house smells like firewood and if it’s not here and if you actually care enough about your stuff, you should come grab it,” and I remember her speeding into the driveway and we have this gravel and gravel was just flying everywhere and she had this yippy little dog with her and she’s running in and she’s a little – she was very emotional and she was already crying and there was mascara running down her face and she had this tiny little dog that didn’t know what was happening.
She just busts into the house and she’s grabbing her things, packing them up, putting it in a box and I remember – she started to hyperventilate and I sat her down and I was like, “Katie, just take your things, a few deep breaths. Wipe the tears from your eyes so you can drive and – and go,” because she just couldn’t – she just couldn’t handle it. There were other things going on in her life and it was too much. And so that was when – when Katie left – she was there for all of a few minutes and didn’t want to be there anymore and, “I have to get out of here,” and so when she left, I remember closing the door, turning around. I had the list from my mom.
Everything was quiet and I was – I mean, it was just me and when you walk into our house, when you walk in the front door, you can see straight through these big beautiful windows that look over the Pedernales River and in the windows the only thing you could see was a little stretch of green at the bottom of the other side of the river and then just white. It was just white smoke and every now and then you’d see black smoke in certain areas and that always just made your heart drop because black smoke is a structure fire and that would be someone’s house going up and, you know, I was running out the house trying to collect these things and my heart’s racing and it’s just confusing. You – you just – you – I didn’t know – I didn’t know if I’d come back to this place again.
Thankfully, I mean, now I sound a little mellow dramatic because my house didn’t catch on fire. I’m lucky. I had friend’s houses who burned to the ground in Spicewood. But, running around and not knowing that – that outcome yet, every time I’d pass the windows I’d look through and smoke would just be growing and you’d see black parts and the sun started to get covered up and everything outside became hazy and you could smell it. I mean, the second you could smell it in my house is just – is just firewood. Like you – like you literally had built a campfire in the middle of your living room and then when you walked outside, it was almost too much. It was like you were standing over the campfire breathing in all the smoke and I was – we were still fairly far away at that point and I remember right before I left, I had the whole van packed up and I went and stood out on my deck one more time and it was such an awesome power that I saw, that I was witnessing.
I just – I won’t forget that sound. It sounded like this big channel of water just flowing past me, just constant, the constant in the distance, this, you know, this – this energy – this energy that was just exploding and I remember one of my friends saying to me later, “I know that must have been scary, but I – I really wish I could have witnessed that because humans just forget that sometimes wildfires, floods, whatever, it’s just – it’s just Earth’s way of cleaning itself up and recycling itself and..” I can understand that if it’s not a man made fire, but still, it’s incredible that humans can still be and should be silenced and awed by what we see as natural disasters. That is part of nature.
KUT News: As you were driving away, what did you feel?
Mattia: I – I certainly felt, as I was driving away, a certain sense of relief. I mean…
KUT News: Can you do it again, so that you’re not…
Mattia: Sorry, yeah. When I was driving away, I felt a certain sense of relief. I had everything that my mom had asked me to get in the van, so I knew I had the most important documentation and memories of our family’s history. So for that, I was happy, but I mean, I still was watching the fire in my rear view mirror and wondering if that – if that was going to be the last time we saw this – this house and it’s not just – houses aren’t just buildings that you’re in that mean nothing to you. You – you hold on to them because you form a relationship with a house and that house my parents had just purchased earlier in the year and to be the place where they retired and my dad’s career was slowly winding down and it was their little – it was their – it was their personal little jewel and I just felt this incredible sadness for my parents that had worked their lives to get to this point and they picked out their little spot and they claimed it and they stuck a flag down and called it theirs and – and I just – I didn’t want it to be destroyed.
I just didn’t want it to be gone and the third thing I remember feeling, and this is a little strange, but you get so much adrenaline in emergency situations and sometimes you even feel a sense of importance. You know, “I got to save the family’s stuff.” So, driving away, I kind of – you’re coming down from that adrenaline and I was like, “Well, what am I going to do now? Go sit in a coffee shop and wait until I can bring the stuff back to my house or not.” This is – I’m sure some people could see this as an awful thing to say, but sometimes with emergency situations, with wildfires like we had in September in 2011, it’s just so – it’s so much bigger than what you’ve experienced in your life for most people that, of course, you want the terror to end or not happen to you, but once it’s gone, you have this weird lack of energy or void where all – the rest of life was put on hold because this thing was happening to everyone and it brought so many people together and then once it’s done, you’re left to your own life again. Everyone has to pick up their own pieces and everyone has to go back to work, go back to school and you just – you just are coming down from this incredible, frightening, terrible, awe-inspiring high.
KUT News: You mentioned community. What do you think that fire in Spicewood, Pedernales, did for your community both good and bad? How would you describe what happened?
Mattia: For the Spicewood community, I think these fires – I think any sort of a natural disaster, in many ways, will bring a community together. You want to help people who lost more than – than you did. You desire help from others who still have something and I know people whose houses were partially gone, not even touched like mine, burned to the ground like one of my friends’ and you – you help each other out and the Pedernales Fire Department is a small department. It’s really small, but they had firefighters coming in from the City of Austin and Travis County Rescue. I mean, they just had firefighters coming in from all over the place to help, so there was a lot of respect and a lot of gratitude for the guys who were out there, especially because there were really difficult conditions to fight fires in and the Spicewood community isn’t really like the Steiner Ranch community.
There – there was a lot of land that was – that was burned, a decent amount of structures, too, but a lot of land, but people still owned that land or did things with that land or made a living on that land. So, sometimes there’s a disconnect between, “Oh, there were this many structure fires here, only this many there,” but they had this land burn, this acreage burned and a lot of people from cities or whatever don’t – don’t make the connection that that land is still so valuable to these communities and I know that it was hard for a lot of people in Spicewood. It was hard for me to see how much publicity other areas with fires were getting that maybe had wealthier communities and I was sitting there and I had the radio on and I was starting to drive away and I was just so angry because it was constantly about other fires and I was leaving my house and I could see a fire right outside my window and it just felt like it was less important because of the community that was there, which…
KUT News: And what you’re saying about Spicewood, we’ve heard over and over and over again and that’s why I asked you about the – whether you got anybody knocking on your door or – so it’s really interesting that uniformly, that is the response we’ve gotten from Spicewood.
Mattia: Well, that’s – I mean, I can understand the frustration of not having anyone to contact and not being able to send anyone out there and I can understand having no fire fighters anywhere because they were either at Steiner Ranch, they had been sent to Bastrop, or they had been sent to Spicewood. Literally the – I mean, I – I had friends in the fire service and everyone volunteers, firefighters on their days off getting pages saying, “We need everyone. Everyone needs to come in now. We all have somewhere to send you,” but it was also – it was hard for people who were from Spicewood and had to leave because we also didn’t have any news about what was happening in Spicewood. So, there was no way for us to find out – to – to see anything, to find out what was happening, where the fire spread, there would be, you know, occasional updates showing the fire maps, but most of the time, you’d have to wait forever and maybe you missed the one updated they had that hour or something. It just – there was no information for us to go off of.
KUT News: Was there anything from the county?
Mattia: Not that I recall. I – I really remembered my source of information being people I was fortunate enough to know in the fire service and there was a notification the next day. I ended up moving – the next evening, I think I ended up moving my stuff back into Spicewood and they just said to keep watching it. “Keep yourself on alert. Keep contacting whoever you need to contact if you’re going to drive back down to San Antonio and just understand you could potentially be needing to make another trip up here, but for now, it’s contained enough that you should be okay.”
KUT News: How long did the fire last in Spicewood?
Mattia: That’s a good question and it’s – the – it’s hard to say how long the fire lasted in Spicewood because, at least from where I was standing, you’d see smoldering continue and they had so many little flare ups. Even once it was mostly contained, you’d still – “Oh, there’s a structure,” or “Oh, something just caught on fire over there.” It was part of the reason it was – it was so difficult to contain was – I mean, that it was a bush fire, so hard to put up perimeters. Even harder to put up perimeters when there’s so much wind and when there were so many flare ups over a relatively large area of land, they just had so much to deal with and the fact that it jumped the river further south. I mean, then they were fighting on two sides of the river and so to be totally honest, I don’t even completely remember how long the Spicewood fire lasted. I do remember that they had problems containing it and that was the scariest part. You know, “It’s 80% contained. Well, we’re back to 40% contained – 50% contained, yes and we’re down to 30.” You know, it’s just – there was – it wasn’t 80% contained and the moving to 90% and then, “Hey, we’ve got the fire contained.” It was constantly up and down.
KUT News: Thank you. Is there anything that you want to tell me about your experience or looking back on that time or what’s changed for you in the last year or what’s changed for the community in the last year that you think is important for people to know?
Mattia: I think in the last year, the community has become far more aware of fire safety and far more protective of their little plot on the Earth. I personally have certainly become far more aware of what not only I’m doing, but people around me are doing. I have no problem walking up to someone and telling them they should do something else with their cigarette butt or, you know, don’t just toss it in the grass on the side of the road and there’s – there’s still people who are building things out there and are trying to build, you know, little ladders or trams or whatever down to the water or doing work on their house and now people are – are much better about not doing any sort of construction work when it’s so, so dry. I know that started a few fires last year, people working on their houses and spark flies and it starts a fire.
So, things that you’re not necessarily doing that are – that are wrong or would, under normal circumstances, hurt the environment. In extremely dry conditions, they can have detrimental affects and so people are just generally far more aware and far more cautious and there’s a constant memory. For the people who have lost their houses, clearly that’s not something they are going to forget. For the people who have to rebuild, they’ve had to rebuild. You know, that’s been a daily reminder and then even just – you continue driving down 71, you pass over the Pedernales River and it’s still pretty dry. So, then, you know, you’re kind of thing, “Wow, man. We just don’t have water. We’re just – we’re just dry,” and you keep driving a little further and – and then it kind of feels like you’ve gone forward or back in time to – to winter because you come across these trees that are – they’re gone. They’ve been scorched. They – they look like blackened trees in winter and I don’t know how long that takes to go away, but it’s a – it’s a memory that’s just been stamped onto the ground that probably won’t go away for a while. It’s not something easily forgettable for a community.
KUT News: Besides the trees, what does it look like?
Mattia: Besides the trees, it’s – it just looks like what a lot of Texas looks like right now, which is brown and dry and the Pedernales is a – is a beautiful river and two summers ago, it was perfect. We’d go out there and we’d cliff jump. People would be riding their boats and wakeboarding right in front of our house, you know, on the – on – we could watch them from the deck and wave to them and everyone was always on the river. It was perfect and now you feel a little more isolated being out there because there’s no one down there. It’s stagnate water. It’s an eerie feeling, all of the – all of the boat docks, they’re all – that used to be floating, they’re all now just laying on these little sloping hills that used to be under water. So, it’s just – it’s just dry. It’s the black trees mixed with the obvious lack of water in the Pedernales. It just makes you so sad and you don’t know when it’s going to come back. People saying it will be ten years and you have people saying, “Eh, it comes and goes all the time like this,” but the truth is we don’t get to control any of that and it’s scary to think that it could not be the same for a long, long time.
KUT News: Can you tell me your name and where you’re from?
Mattia: My name is Mary Mattia and I am from Spicewood.
KUT News: I think that was an awesome interview, Mary. That was great.