*The following transcription may not be identical to audio.
On April 12, 2012, Melissa Bishop came into KUT News’ studios and read a story she had written about her experience during the Central Texas Wildfires.
Bishop: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
This to tell what happened in the 35 square mile forest fire in the worst drought in Texas history. I fought this fire and lost, wearing flip flops and a sundress.
It all started as an afternoon of beautiful rosey orange light. I thought ah, it is the golden Autumn light. It was not. An hour later I smelled smoke. I went out on the Park Road and up Bike Wreck Hill. It looked like stars were falling in the woods. Everywhere, little fires were landing in the pine needles. I went back to my house and called my friend Jared and asked” Wheres the fire?” He said “What fire?” A few minutes later he called back and said “You better get out. It looks like its coming down the Alum Creek watershed”.Jared came with his stock trailer but the horses were too nervous to get in. As we tried to load the frantic horses, off about a quarter mile away we heard a strange hissing roar. We heard it go by like a freight train, from the north to the south. Later we learned that was a crown fire running on a 40 mile an hour wind. A crown fire storm that rolls through the woods like a horizontal tornado. The heat from it explodes all the trees in front of it’s line of fire, and it travels fast as the wind. This was one of many crown fires, and it blew all the way to the river and jumped it. If it had been 1/4 mile further east, this tale would never have been told.I told Jarad please, just go on back to the ranch, I will bring the animals. I loaded the milk goats into the goat carrier on my truck, and loaded the chicken cage on top of the goat carrier. I went to the lizard house and caught the giant carnivorous Water Monitor, BigAssLizard, and stuffed the hissing, thrashing creature into a kingsize pillow case. I took the two stallions and led them holding their leadropes out the window of the truck at a run. I led them two miles to the safty of Jared’s ranch, where I have known the family living there for 32 years. Then I went back for the remaining 4 birds. And the emus. But how could I load the emus? Papa, Mama, Kicking Bird and Diniwan? I could not. The poor emus!
I gathered 2 more hens from their coup, caught the raven and the songbird and loaded them in pillowcases. My brave little Whippet bitch was at my side. When I drove back up to the park road it was smokey and strangely dark. At the end of the driveway I drove right into Hell. The fire had come over the hill and raged on both sides of the road. Tall pines were burning from crown to foot. Continuous showers of sparks flew off them like Roman candles. Tree trunks exploded with loud bangs, burning shards of wood flew through the air. The firey wind was blowing hard as the heat increased. Flaming trees were falling across the road right and left. I turned and went the other way. Same thing. So I drove back down to my place and got the chain. Going back into the fire, I wrapped the tow chain on burning trees and pulled them off of the road with my little truck. And no I was not scared. I was mad. Mad at the fire. Mad at what it was doing to the forest. A chemical reaction. Not the wrath of god, no, just a reaction of physics. Starting from some idiotic tiny spark.
Eventually, I came to trees too big to drag. My truck could not budge them. The heat and smoke were getting intolerable. I got my cell phone, called 911 and asked “What do they suggest I do”? The lady said “Stay where you are, we will send someone to get you”. I said, “No, thats alright, don’t risk anyone”. She said “Stay there, don’t worry, we will send someone”. I said “No thanks thats alright” and hung up. I was could not stay where I was.
I went back to my house. It was still there! From the north a low line of fire was coming down the hill . So I went and got two buckets, and carried loads of water from the horse trough. I stopped that fire 20 feet from my house. Just then, lights came bouncing through the smoke. It was policemen, three state troopers and a sheriff. They said Come on Come on Lets go! I went with them, but they let me go back to my truck. They said to go to Smithville to the ‘Rec Center’. So I drove east down HW 71 toward Smithville. I appreciated what the police had done. They had moved flaming trees off the road that I couldn’t move. But it seemed to me that the Wreck Center was back at my place. I had been having such good results with those two buckets. And the emus! So I turned on KLBJ road went back on the park road.
After Alum creek it was the end of the world. It looked like the land of Mordor in the last battle. Flames writhed on the trees like demons, like huge dragons in their monsterous fire. I could not drive through that tunnel of fire. So I parked my truck back at the creek where the fire had already burned through and ran the quarter mile to my land. No I was not afraid then. I have been in forest fires before, as one of the ad hoc volunteer fire fighters. Or in controlled burns. But this was no controlled burn. I was cautious but made my way through, mostly on the road. Flaming trees fell in explosions of sparks. But if you see one fall, that means it has’nt fallen on you. And you go on.
My house incredibly was still there. I could even see the flames of the fire reflected in it’s windows. So I started in with the buckets again. But before my eyes, I saw the points of the flames change direction on the wind. And from the west and coming fast, was a wall of fire 20 feet high. I cannot handle this I said to myself. But then, a crazy thought took over. People are not in their right minds in a fire. We are like horses running back into a burning barn. I turned to face that wall of fire, narrowed my eyes and said Bring It On.
Just then, the lights came running though the smoke again. It was those same policemen! How did they know? They said, “Look! Theres her dog!” I said “You again!” They said “You Again!” I said I was doing fine. The trooper looked into my eyes and said “No you’re not, You’re fixing to die”. I ran with them up the road, but stopped and bent down and held my knees. I was so tired, I could not breathe. There was no oxygen. They came back and stayed with me and told me to run. That wall of fire was coming fast from the west and right next to the road. There were more police waiting on the road and they ran to their cars. They would not let me get back in my truck this time. I said “wait! I have animals in my truck!” “What kind of animals?” “Birds” I said. “We don’t allow birds in the police car”. I thought of all the jailbirds they had had in that car. I said “They are chickens! They are in pillow cases! If this was a police dog you would let him right in!”. Sometimes you get a view of yourself from the Universe. Argueing with police in the middle of hell. So I just got in with the birds.
They took me to Smithville hospital, and got me evaluated for smoke inhalation. I am a nurse. I had already treated the burns on my legs while I waited for the doctor, and the other nurses approved of this. Then the police took me to that shelter. The people there had to document everything, what kind of animals I had, what were their names. I told them the names of the chickens, and that the Raven was a chicken. They did not check. They were very kind. They gave me food and water and gave me my own room and the birds upside down laundry baskets to stay in. I slept as if comatose.
The next day, the highway and all the roads were closed. The fire had moved south but was still out of control. My truck was 10 miles away, so I snuk around the police and walked back. I got a ride part way from a news photographer. Of course my place was burned up but the emus were still alive! And not even hurt! How could they live? Then I saw where the wall of fire had come through, bare black sticks that used to be tree trunks. It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. Then I realized, how could I have lived? So I went to the ranch where my animals were. Boiling black clouds like a huge storm front were behind the hill. The family was in a panic. The brothers did not think the fire would get the ranch buildings. The grass on the hill was all gone because of the drought and the fire would go around. Yet those people drove off in a hurry. Jarad told me I should go with them but I said “I’m not leaving you, Jarad”. Jarad had been my friend for 32 years. He took care of me for months last year when I was hurt so bad and got out of the hospital. Who had been a gallant horseman who helped me with my animals as long as I had known him. No way would I leave him there, alone. Although I had my doubts about the theory. I went into the house and got my big lizard out of the shower where I had stashed her, just in case.
This was well founded. Because what came over that hill was a monster of fire, a crown fire said by distant witnesses to be 60-80 feet high. It raced across the pasture. Tornados of fire twistied and ran eeirily along the fire line. The stored hay crop on the hill went in an explosive flash. The wall of flame roared through the corrals and burned the very soil. It burned down to mineral soil. Oh yes, it took the whole ranch, killed my milk goats when the barn was destroyed, burned the ranch house and the tractor and all the out buildings. When the smoke shifted for an instant every single thing we could see was on fire. I wanted to get out of that truck. I wanted to save things. Set the horses and animals free to run, to save the painting of the bull that hung in the house, and Jared’s guitars. And where was my dog? But I weas afraid. Thats when I was afraid. The smoke was so thick we could hardly see the windshield wipers. Neither of us could easily draw a breath, but we both pretended like nothing was wrong. There was nothing we could do. The horses, my beautiful black stallion and his pony friend, and Jarad’s cowhorse and his old red horse…. The fire had burned through their corrals, they must have died a horrible death. I was crying. But when the wind shifted the smoke, there they were, still standing up! They had burns on their feet, and their tails were shorter. Later, in the evening, my chickens started to come from everywhere. How did they live?
Jared and I slept that night, with the fire still burning in the woods here and there, on saddlepads on the sidewalk of the ranch house. Later, we fixed the calf hospital to be a sort of a house. There was nothing else. Not even a hollow tree.
My friends showed up from south of Houston within 3 hours the next day, and brought a generator, a field kitchen, and fed us like kings. They built a bathroom with a flush tolilet and even a shower. They pulled the still smoldering tree trunks off the roof of the calf hospital. I went to town on a 100 mile round trip for supplies and hay. Because country people know the back roads around the roadblocks. And we have livestock to feed and care for, we will not leave them. I came back with bales of hay stacked above the cab and groceries for the people and pain medicine for the horses. And that deputy dog at the Antioch road intersection would not let me pass. “But that is the ranch right there!” I said, pointing to the blackened corner. “This is hay for the cattle, and pain medicine for the horses!” That cop would not let me pass. He said I could go back the way I came. Then I did something I had never done in my life. I made my eyes like a bead and said “Fuck You!” Driving off down the side road, I got out and cut the fence. And I took other people with me too, so they could get to their places. It was like a caravan across the blackened landscape. Later this track would come to be known by the local population as The Scenic Route.
People of the countryside helped each other. Everyone was covered in soot. A cheerful woman showed up on a four wheeler with a tiny dog in a crate that was tied on the back. She had plastic rake, she said she used it to put out spot fires. She loaned us her chain saw. People who had food and clothes gave to those who did not. I made bird and deer feed and water stations. I found cut up apples and vegetables left on the feed by unknown benefactors. People showed up with trailer loads of hay and fed entire cattle herds.
It has been weeks now. The forest is still on fire here and there but they put it out with helicopters. From here on this hill we can see 4 or 5 columns of smoke. BigAssLizard has a new house. The horse’s feet are all healed up. All my chickens are running loose. I am gratefull to those brave policemen who saved my life. My timid little Whippet dog has shown she has the courage of a lioness.
And all in all, what was lost was just stuff. Things come and go in life. My mother when she was retired used to periodically give everything she owned away and go off and start a new life. And unlike me, she did this on purpose. I can learn from this. Actually, it is quite liberating. My next house will be a treehouse in some other green woods. Not a crummy treehouse nailed to a tree, but a nice house up on telephone poles in the trees. Yes treehouses and forests can burn down, but so what? All this is part of Life on Earth. Part of the Entertainment.
KUT News: My goodness. How could you have – you were just in the middle of this fire, you kept going back to it.
Bishop: Well, you know when you have creatures – it’s not about stuff. Stuff can be replaced, houses can be replaced, furniture can be replaced, photographs heck it’s just stuff. You can always get more stuff, but when you have creatures, livestock, pets, you’re obliged to save them if you can because that’s just the bottom line, that’s just the way it is and I think that just going back, going around the fire, I’m used to fire, I’m not afraid of fire, I kind of learned how to get through and around fire and not take totally idiotic risks. Also, people in fires are not in their right minds and when I had those two buckets of water and the fire wall was coming from the west you know I turned to face it and I said to myself, bring it on. Because people are not in their right mind in a fire we’re like horses that run back into a burning barn.
KUT News: You’re ready to fight.
Bishop: Yeah. I know I could have – the emus lived in that pen, that had picked all the vegetation down to the ground and there was about a half acre with not a thing, not even pine needles and that’s how they lived and that’s where I could have run if I had to. Of course, hindsight’s 50/50, but all the creatures of mine lived except for the three milk goats and two chickens.
KUT News: You should be very proud of that.
Bishop: I know. Thank you. And my friend, his family, they all lived and we were there right through it.
KUT News: When you saw at his ranch the crown, the crown fire, that was so tall – were you in his truck? Where were you?
Bishop: I was in his truck. I was in the truck the whole time.
KUT News: The whole time so you felt safe cause you could drive away from it or what?
Bishop: Well, as the fire came so quickly, it came so fast, that fire came across as fast as a man can run and the fire – I could see it shooting along the ground burning the soil, the humus in the soil, it was that hot. And the fire ran past us, a streak of fire ran along the ground and so we were not able. If we had wanted to, I guess we could have driven through that little patch of fire, but we didn’t.
KUT News: So, were you stuck there in the truck?
Bishop: Yeah, it didn’t seem like a very good idea to get out because of the smoke inhalation. When you can’t see the windshields – the wipers on the windshield it’s probably not a good idea and breathe that. Smoke inhalation is what gets people.
KUT News: Because it’s sucking all the oxygen out?
Bishop: Exactly. Yes.
KUT News: So, you were in the truck and you couldn’t even see out the windshield?
Bishop: We saw the fire come over the ridge, it was just a monster, a mountain of fire, it ran so fast across the field. There’s a patch of – a pasture between the forest and the hill that the house and the buildings were on, but it just crossed that so fast it was like a wave – it was like a wave. That’s what it looked like. A wave breaking on the shore, a roller, a breaker and it just came so fast and then it caught the ranch structures and materials and even the soil, a lot of humus in the soil. It was fuel for the fire and it just ran across the ground, even bare ground.
KUT News: So, you said tornados of fire so you could see – could you see actually twisters?
Bishop: Yes, that was so eerie and so actually beautiful, but the wave of fire, the breaking, rolling wave of fire coming across had four or five tornados of fire coming out of it and they were just running along the fire line, weaving back and forth. It was beautiful. It was beautiful, I mean, it was strangely beautiful, it was fascinating.
KUT News: So you could see all of that before things started to burn and create smoke?
Bishop: Right, yes. And then I could see the barn where my goats were just went puff and the fire wall went through the corrals where the horses were. It was about as high as their hocks and it caught the shed where the heavy equipment and the tractors are kept and a lot of oil in there. It just exploded. The buildings were the tack was kept, they’re very old wooden buildings and they just went puff and that was the last I could see. The smoke just completely filled our view and it was really kind of hard to breathe, but behind us, in the rearview mirror I saw a little light happen back where the house was and I turned around and the fire had – now that ranch house is stucco house with a metal roof, but the fire had come across the ground and although he had cleaned out the storm gutters and the leaves; the fire caught into a downspout that had leaves in it and that carried the fire up like a smoke stack right under the eaves of the house and so Jared got out and they had turned off the water, but he had three gallons of drinking water so he got a ladder and threw that drinking water in under there, but it was too late. He said he could see that the rafters were on fire so he came back and got back in the truck. That’s what happened to the ranch house so we watched that too behind us.
KUT News: The fire went up the downspout?
Bishop: Yes ma’am.
KUT News: And caught the eve which was wood?
KUT News: And then got in the house?
Bishop: Right. The wind just blew it right in. The wind, 30-40 miles an hour – there’s no stopping. That fire was already down the hill and into the road and into the woods on the other side of the road. If we had wanted to drive out of there, we couldn’t have even when we could now see what the deal was.
KUT News: How long were in the truck when you couldn’t see anything?
Bishop: We were probably in the truck about ten or fifteen minutes and we were trying – I mean I was trying to take small little breaths and not let him know that I was struggling and he didn’t say anything either because what could we have done?
KUT News: You didn’t know if you were going to survive, right?
Bishop: Oh well. It didn’t occur to me – death just doesn’t occur to me.
KUT News: And you didn’t know if you could get out though? It just came on so fast all of a sudden you couldn’t –
Bishop: Right, we couldn’t really see what – we couldn’t really see what the situation was; we couldn’t really tell where the fire was, we’re in a forested area and it was alright. We lived through it. It was actually now a part of the entertainment; it was pretty entertaining.
KUT News: But no one – neither one of you said well, let’s start the car and go, let’s start the truck and go?
Bishop: No, no.
KUT News: And that’s because you couldn’t see or because you didn’t want to go?
Bishop: Well, in my case, it’s probably I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t leaving my creatures. The ones I had evacuated, they were there. He wasn’t leaving. If he wanted to leave, well, I would have left with him, but he wasn’t leaving. He had 60 or 70 cattle there in a pen below the house and it just doesn’t occur to people to run away and leave their livestock if they can possibly avoid that.
KUT News: Where was his ranch located?
Bishop: It’s – well, it’s between Bastrop and Smithville about two miles from my house up to the north, the northwest so that fire, it was a huge fire if you’ve seen it from the air or from the satellite imagery, it’s a huge triangle and his ranch is sort of at the eastern edge of that triangle. My place was flat in the middle and you know that fire just went on. It was unstoppable. They told the firemen and fire crews to just withdraw, retreat, there’s no stopping it and it jumped the highway, jumped oh I guess about a 400 foot fire break which was the highway with a center and both sides of the road that just the heat ignited the trees on the opposite side of Highway 71 and that fire went on and burned up a lot of houses and, in fact, it jumped the Colorado River, the heat. Now, looking back on it, what Jared and I heard while we were trying to get the horses in the trailer; that was that fire – if that had come a little bit to the east, I would not be here telling you this because we would have been roasted. We could not have escaped that.
KUT News: You were right on the eastern triangle edge?
Bishop: Yeah. And if you look at the satellite imagery, you see long, long black streaks where there are no dead pine trees, there’s nothing and there are these long, long streaks and those are – those were where crown fires were running on that wind and the heat was so intense that it sterilized the soil. In those crown fires, there’s hardly anything sprouting. In a lot of parts of the woods where it just was a ground fire and it killed the trees, but it didn’t incinerate them from top to bottom. Grass is growing, wildflowers are growing, but where those crown fires ran, there’s nothing. It sterilized the soil. The heat sterilized it. So, well, that’s the way it is and that’s the way it goes.
KUT News: Did you feel proud of yourself with your two buckets defending your house from the fire? Cause you kept it at bay for a while. You left with it standing. You came back and it was standing.
Bishop: Yes. Yeah, I feel like if the fire had continued in that condition with the low ground fire, I may have run out of bucket – I may have run out of water for the buckets from the horse troth because I was down to about a third so I don’t know, maybe it would have gotten my house. The one that came from the west, that wall of fire, that would have gotten –
KUT News: That came after you?
Bishop: Yeah, there was no way anyone could have stopped that.
KUT News: So, where are you living?
Bishop: Well, I’m living on what’s left of the ranch at Jared’s, that calf house we made into a house and that’s where I live.
KUT News: Still?
Bishop: Yeah. That ranch is going to be sold and I’m going to move to Curry County, Oregon where it rains and the trees are hundreds of feet tall because they never burn.
KUT News: When is this happening?
Bishop: In about a year.
KUT News: But you’ve got your plan?
Bishop: Oh, absolutely.
KUT News: How come you’re leaving?
Bishop: The reason I live –
KUT News: Tell me first, how did – why do you live in Bastrop?
Bishop: Well, I lived in the forest because of the beauty and I’m actually what I call a beauty monk. The beauty of nature is the Church of God to me. God built it and continues to build it. Creation wasn’t over in seven days; evolution is creation to me and I lived in the woods because of the beauty of the woods and I know it will grow back, but not in my lifetime and I also love the mountains and I love the hills and I love the sea and Curry County is right on the southwestern edge of Oregon and the hills rise up 5,000 feet above the ocean. They’re covered with forest. The scenic wild rivers of that area looks like just a mass – scenic wild rivers can never be messed with. Curry County is two-thirds public land. There are a 1,000 square miles to ride a horse on.
KUT News: How’d you find out about Curry?
Bishop: I’ve been through Oregon before and I grew up in Northern California, so I don’t prefer to live in California anymore.
KUT News: But you love trees?
Bishop: I love the forest and I love my horse and that horse, the reason I have him is someday I want to ride in the Tevis Cup Horse Race which is a 100 mile horse race over the Sierra Nevada mountains and I need to exercise that horse and all of Texas is just cut up into 40 acre pastures so that’s another big reason is because of that horse. He’s a black Arabian Stallion and he’s just as pretty and such as nice. Arabians are the only breed that the Horseshow Association allows children to ride in horseshows. That’s how gentle they are.
KUT News: And it did not get burned? His hoofs?
Bishop: The heels of his hooves got burned because that fire – he must have – he had to have run through that fire. His tail was a little shorter. His tail had been down to the ground and it was up to his hocks and it was burned. He had inhaled smoke. Discharge – a watery discharge was coming from his nostrils. The thing you fear most is that a horse can damage their lungs from smoke inhalation and they’ll never be the same, they’ll never have the same stamina and they’re basically ruined, but he cleared up and he did not get a muco-purulent discharge, that’s mucus discharge and then pneumonia. He actually did pretty well. So did Jared’s horses; actually got less damage than my horses so the sad thing was my milk goats.
Goats are not like a sheep or a cow; they are like a dog. They have distinctive personality and mine were pedigreed milk goats and I made cheese with their milk. I had a billy who is bred from the top sonnen dairy buck in the United States and all of those were, I think they were killed pretty quickly, but the USDA gave money to everybody who lost livestock according to the kind that they lost and I got a little bit of money for those dead milk goats and I have re-invested it in a dairy calf. I have bought a Jersey heifer and I always preferred cow milk anyway.
KUT News: Is there anything else you’d like to say? Is Jared going with you, may I ask, to Oregon?
Bishop: I think so. He says he is. I don’t think he’s entirely convinced. He’s been a rancher there for 30 or 40 years, 40 years. The ranch – ranchers don’t care so much about beauty; they care about grass and the grass is looking pretty good, but he says oh he’s getting too old to ranch and I said well, you’re not too old to – you don’t want to hang out here until you’re too old to ride a horse and he sees my point I think.
KUT News: You mentioned on your first written article that you didn’t see any firefighters.
Bishop: No one warned me, I don’t have a TV; I didn’t have the radio on. It was a shock to me to come out in that afternoon of Sunday the 4th and smell smoke. That was the first I knew of it and so that’s when I drove up on the forest road and saw shooting stars, looked like shooting stars falling everywhere in the woods and I knew well, okay, this is it. I just took it from there.
KUT News: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story Melissa.