Michael Bay-Borelli: Good morning. I’m Michael Bay-Borelli. I live on Paleface Ranch Road, which was in the center of the Spicewood Wildfires about two miles out on the road, right in the middle of the situation.
KUT News: So tell me about, I guess, that day.
Bay-Borelli: It was an exciting day, to put it mildly. My wife and I have a small ranch on Paleface Ranch Road with horses and a few cows and our dogs, and we were actually in Bastrop on that day, having lunch with fellow horse people when we got a phone call that there was a fire in the area and that we should get home quickly. We did; raced home. Oddly enough, the people that we were with were also in the middle of the Bastrop fire and they raced home to their place. When we got here the road was closed, and we told the officers that we needed to get up to our ranch because we had horses and dogs to get out and they said if you’re going, go quickly and don’t dawdle. So, we rode up to the road and there was fire and smoke and everything everywhere and emergency vehicles. Pulled in our driveway and fortunately, our horse trailer was hooked up from a previous day’s adventures.
We threw the four horses into the trailer, let the cows loose so that they could take care of themselves, grabbed the dogs and ran down the driveway and fire was licking at our heels, as the expression would have it, as we pulled out of the driveway, literally. We went up the road about two or three miles to a friend’s house, it’s much higher elevation than our place and watched the fire progress. Later that day, we spoke with the fire chief from the Spicewood Fire Department, Dean Lester, and he said to us, Mike, Deb, I was down at the base of your house when the fire was moving in that direction; there is no way your place could have made it. He said it was just engulfed in flame. We said, well, okay, and we couldn’t get back in for several days and so we just watched the disaster unfold and worried about just what had happened.
Ultimately, we came to terms with the fact that if everything was gone, the phrase we used was, it’s just stuff. We have our dogs, we have our horses, we have our lives, we’ll put it all back together. As it turned out, when we were allowed back in, about one day before we were allowed back in, which was almost one week later, we had a conflicting report from PEC, Pedernales Electric Co-Op, an official had said that he was at our house and that it was there and we said that can’t be and he said, no, I was there, it’s there. So we weren’t sure if he had the right house, so we ultimately were allowed up the street and made the left into our driveway and opened the big gate and went up the driveway and low and behold, the house was there, the barn was there, the garage was there, the trees around the house were there; everything else was cooked to ashes, the rest of the acreage was scorched and all the fences were burned up because, you know, the wooden posts, they all burned up and the fences were down. But, the house was there and so we held on to each other and cried, which is all you can do. We were very lucky.
A neighbor on our right, the house was burned to the ground, to the cement slab. The neighbor on our left, all of their outbuildings burned to the ground; many of the people across the street from us, down towards the river, were all burned out completely. Spicewood community lost, depending on whose count you use, FEMA’s or others, somewhere between 47 and 53 homes, 3,000 acres over a three mile stretch. The devastation was contained to that area, as opposed to Bastrop which was, I believe, in excess of 1,500 homes and something like 80,000 acres; a far larger disaster than ours, but for the people involved in Paleface Ranch Road and the roads right around that area in that three mile stretch, the devastation was overwhelming.
KUT News: And you hear people talk about fires not having any kind of discretion, I mean, some folks have talked about, kind of, a survivors’ guilt –
Bay-Borelli: Yep. Fire is fickle. It intrigued us to drive around the neighborhood shortly thereafter and see one house burned to the ground and the next house standing. Our ranch, all of the trees around our house, our home, the barn, the hay barn, the horse barn, the garage, all were survived, but there was fire literally right up to the edge of it.
KUT News: And even the fireman that you spoke to, the fire chief, he, you know, assured you –
Bay-Borelli: Virtually assured us that there was no chance that our house would survive. It turns out that there was a fire truck from out of town, from Austin actually, because there were a lot of other companies in during that time who, prior to the fire coming up our driveway, had actually driven up our driveway and took a look at the ranch and said, it’s an old, it’s sort of an historic home within the Spicewood community. The Spicewood area was built around the Red Brangus Cattle, which started on the Paleface Ranch and our house is actually the foreman’s house for the Paleface Ranch. So, it’s a fixture in the community and it’s an old log home in the old-fashioned style. And, when he looked at it and saw the house and the trees around it and all of the pastures that had been carefully cleared of all of the nasty stuff, there was no cedar; we had chopped all of the cedar, all of the mesquite was out, all of our pastures are chopped. So, they looked very pretty and he and his colleagues said, you know, this ranch shouldn’t be allowed to burn and so they were actually parked in our driveway when the fire came up the driveway and that’s the reason the house didn’t burn and the barns didn’t burn. It’s because some very brave firemen stayed there and stopped it from happening.
KUT News: How long have you guys been out there?
Bay-Borelli: We’ve been there 11 years. We came here from South Dakota, where we also had a ranch, a bigger one, but retired to the Spicewood community, which turned out to be a wonderful place to be. Following the fire, my wife and I came to a realization about the role that fire companies play in a community that you never think about. You know, the volunteer firemen respond to 30, 50, 60 calls a month, but you never realize that’s happening and so we said, you know, we ought to be able to give something back to this community for having saved our ranch and so we actually joined the Spicewood volunteer fire department. I’m too old, I’m almost 70, so I’m not at the point where I’m going to go out and fight fires, but I’m doing for them the same thing I’m doing for the Long Term Recovery Committee, which is trying to find resources to rebuild the volunteer fire company. They lost a lot of resources fighting the fire; they have old, I don’t want to say dilapidated because that wouldn’t be a kind word, but held together with bubble gum and baling twine equipment and two of the six trucks actually were just about totally destroyed and a lot of other equipment was destroyed. So, I’ve been trying, and successfully I guess, to find resources to help re-establish their equipment and also got involved with the Long Term Recovery Committee. What did we form up, Tommy, about three weeks after the fire?
Pastor Tommy Wilburn: Three weeks.
Bay-Borelli: Yeah, three weeks after the fire, I heard by the word of mouth that they were establishing a recovery committee and said to my wife that this was something I thought I could help with.
KUT News: Is that our background, kind of a –
Bay-Borelli: My background as a school administrator, I was a teacher for many years and then a superintendent of schools for 20 years. So, I am used to dealing with government and funding and bureaucracies and –
KUT News: Red tape.
Bay-Borelli: Red tape and all that foolishness and so I thought perhaps there was a role I could play in helping here. Terry Snyder, in fact, was the person who called me and told me that this was coming together from down in Dripping Springs. He works with a church group, is it Lutheran Fellowship or –
Wilburn: Uh, Presbyterian.
Bay-Borelli: Presbyterian, yeah. A lot of the Long Term Recovery Committees are organized from church groups that came together to help support the community. This recovery committee has been outstanding. People from all walks of life – this is a blue collar community basically, Spicewood, and we’ve been able to find people with a variety of skill sets who have come together with little or no acrimony. It’s intriguing how a disaster brings out the best in people sometimes; it can also bring out the worst, I’m sure, but in this instance, what we saw were a large number of people from the Spicewood community, both people affected by the fire and people who were in the community and spared that disaster who said that they wanted to support the community and help rebuild it.
KUT News: In whatever way they could.
Bay-Borelli: In whatever way they could. And, we’ve had an outpouring both fiscal resources and of personal time from people and their expertise in various and sundry ways. Tommy, in particular, has been absolutely fantastic. I don’t know how many hours per week he’s given at this point, but I think it’s more than there are hours in a week; and a number of other people, as well. It’s hard to say how a group like this changes a community, but absent this sort of an organization, the recovery committee, the people would have been floundering for what to do; for spiritual and emotional guidance, as well as for physical support. But with this being the focal point of people’s recovery effort, they could come here for information, we’ve built a webpage which I help Tommy and others maintain, we have an information, we have a food pantry that we created for this purpose.
We’ve searched for resources by way of funding to help rebuild homes. At this point, we have, is it, let me get the statistics right; we had 50 some-odd homes involved in the fire, I believe 17 of them were totally destroyed. Some of those were uninsured, others were insured, but of the uninsured ones, at this point, I believe it’s nine uninsured, completely uninsured?
Bay-Borelli: Nine totally uninsured and of those, I believe, five now are well underway. Is that the right number?
Wilburn: Only three remain.
Bay-Borelli: Yeah, so six are well underway for reconstruction.
KUT News: Through funds that you got –
Bay-Borelli: Through funds that we’ve been able to secure –
KUT News: Wow.
Bay-Borelli: From the Austin Disaster Relief Network, who have been absolutely wonderful with us; through the Austin Community Foundation; through a variety of church fellowships. We’ve had volunteers in excess of 3,000 at this point, some of whom gave an hour and other who gave 200 hours, but over 3,000 people have been in and out of this community; from church groups, from civic groups, from Lyons organizations, from community organizations, from outside of this region, from outside of this state and now we have from outside of the Country. Folks who have been here and who have just pitched in and done what needed to be done; it’s been wonderful, it really has.
KUT News: Spicewood is in, kind of, a unique spot where some call it, kind of, a no-man’s land because, you know, it’s Travis County, but then there is also encroaching –
KUT News: Exactly. It seems like you found that all communities have kind of come together to help you guys. Has there been any acrimony, you know, kind of push and pull between different organizations in terms of, you know, whose responsibility Spicewood is.
Bay-Borelli: You know, actually, we expected that, Tommy and I and the board, as we moved into this, we expected to see some divisiveness and some, with limited resources, people vying for those resources and competitiveness and jealousy and petty issues and ultimately, it’s a human endeavor, whether it’s government organized or civic organized, it’s a human endeavor and people are people. Much to our surprise and odd that you should ask that question because Tommy and I were talking about it this morning. We have seen very, very little acrimony. Has there been some? Of course. There are some people who feel they didn’t get as much as their nextdoor neighbor got or something like that. But, for the most part, turf battles have been nonexistent; municipal organizations haven’t said, well those homes are in Bastrop County or those homes are in Travis County or those homes are outside of our jurisdiction. The Spicewood community breaching, as you noted, two different county lines has not been an issue.
Most of the fire actually sits in Travis County; just a little bit of it moved over into Bastrop County. But, it’s been a non-issue. Our Long Term Recovery Committee, unlike others in the state and the nation, has not been paralyzed by people vying for power and control, it just hasn’t happened, which is wonderful.
KUT News: It’s interesting, too, that you guys put together a Long Term Recovery Committee three weeks after the fire and in the very short term. Did you always have that big picture?
Bay-Borelli: In the first 90 days, I think our focus was entirely on the short term recovery; getting a roof over people’s heads, foods in their stomach, a sense of spiritual and emotional well-being, folks were in crisis and when folks are in crisis, they don’t want to know about what they’re going to do nine months from now, they want to know about what they’re going to do tomorrow. I would say our focus as a recovery committee was on those immediate human needs, but, even while we were doing that, the board, not the larger group but the board of directors of the recovery committee, was talking about where are we going to be a year from now? Are we going to be able to get these homes rebuilt? What will it take? How will we get it done? What resources will we need? Who will make those things happen?
So, I guess it was happening in two layers; up front was the immediate need and in the background was the long term planning for disaster recovery and we even talked about the fact that, while this wildfire precipitated the need to establish a recovery committee, we ought to have, as a community, a long term disaster recovery plan, disaster preparedness; while this wildfire was horrific and amazing in terms of its devastation, it probably isn’t the only disaster that will strike this community in the next five to ten years, stuff happens. There is still a lot of nasty, dry cedar trees out there that could catch again, if we have a drought. We were terribly unprepared.
An anecdote: when my wife and I were pulling out of our house, we said we ought to grab some clothes and I went into the house and said what should we take, what should we take, what should we take? And, we had no plan, no idea of what to grab and I opened a drawer and grabbed some clothes and threw it in a bag and we ran out to the car. When we finally got settled down three days later and I opened the bag to see what I grabbed, I grabbed 18 pairs of jockey shorts and one t-shirt. That’s not disaster preparedness. We now have packages for all of our people in our community that are planning guides; what should you have set aside in your house if you have 20 seconds notice to get the heck out of it? You ought to have your passports, if you have such things. You ought to have some identification, you ought to have this, you ought to have that and you ought to have it sitting in a place where you can just grab it and run.
KUT News: People talk about to-go bags, I guess.
Bay-Borelli: Right, to-go bags. And, we’ve done that now. We have those resources, both for ourselves in our own home but we now, as a long term disaster recovery committee, have actually secured kits from other organizations – what was the name of the organization, Tommy, that provided us those disaster recovery kits for people, the 35 that we just got, with the zip drives and – I can’t remember the name. It doesn’t matter. Somebody came in and gave us 35 of these to-go bags that have zip drives to get critical files off your computer and guidelines for food and emergency, etc. So, we’ve been distributing those in the community and we’ll probably get more and distribute those, as well. So, we’re trying to not just deal with this immediate current disaster, but actually have an organization within the community that can respond to emergency needs down the road, as well.
KUT News: I feel like that’s one of the benefits that have come, you know, I talked with some folks out at Steiner Ranch that have said the same thing. Even in terms of, kind of, creating a fire-wise committee, as well.
Bay-Borelli: And, I hope, as we rebuild the homes on the Paleface Ranch Road and the neighboring roads, that our neighbors who were not involved in the fire take note of the fact that they are in great risk if they don’t start to clear cedar and to do the things that are necessary to prevent fire from reaching their homes; to create a perimeter around their home of at least 200 feet that is cedar and tree free or what have you. There are guidelines for how to make your house safe or safer in the event of wildfire and I’ve seen a lot of tree trimming in areas that didn’t burn, which is encouraging.
KUT News: From the county or from individuals?
Bay-Borelli: No, from individuals, privately.
KUT News: Some people are taking, kind of, the responsibility –
Bay-Borelli: Some, not all, of course. Others will continue to not note or recognize that.
KUT News: Do you feel like you know your neighbors a little better at this point?
Bay-Borelli: Odd that you should say that. My wife and I lived here for ten years before the fire and I think we knew two people in town. You know, we live on a large ranch or a small; large for us, small for Texas, but onto ourselves for the most part. As a result of the fire, as I mentioned earlier, we joined the volunteer fire department, which has gotten us very involved in the Spicewood community and lots of people in the community and the Long Term Recovery Committee has been another vehicle for interacting with lots of other people in the community and lots of organizations that helped us support the community. I believe that experience is true for almost all of the people that were in the fire; many of them didn’t interact or know very many of their neighbors at all. Now, most of us waive and say hi on the streets and, yeah, it’s a terrible way to bring a community together, but, yes, it had that impact, definitely.
KUT News: Are folks getting passed it and moving on or is it too soon?
Bay-Borelli: It’s too soon. It depends on the level of disaster of individuals. My wife and I, as I mentioned earlier, were fortunate that our house didn’t burn, our barns didn’t burn, just our property burned, so it was just stuff to fix. But people across the street lost everything; the people next to us lost everything. For them, the disaster is not over, it’s chapter three in this nine chapter book; it will be years before the recovery is complete and it’s just, remember back in 2010 when we had that big fire and, oh yeah, we lived through that, but right now it’s still clear and present danger.
KUT News: Rebuilding fences is not, that’s no small task. I mean, I know that, you know, your house didn’t burn, but there are things that you guys clearly have to get done.
Bay-Borelli: Oddly enough, our house was insured but our property is not. Our insurance was very helpful, in terms of dealing with restoring the house because we had lots of smoke damage and everything in the house was covered with soot and damage and what have you, so insurance handled that. But, as you mentioned, insurance did not handle the property. We’ve pulled a couple of miles of fence out and put new fence back in, we’ve hauled out, probably at this point, 200 to 300 trees that were burned and cut them and chopped them and mulched them and what have you. It’s a very expensive undertaking. We are blessed in that we happen to have the resources to do that and so we have. We have neighbors that have similar damage to their property and if you drive through all you see are still black sticks standing up because they don’t have the resources to do that.
We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to pull together volunteers; in fact, Tommy and I were just this morning talking about a project that we’re going to try and get funded to clear these burned trees out of the area. You know, the immediate need was food and shelter, short term shelter. The next need was to plan for how to rebuild these homes and get people back into permanent structures. Now, the need over the next couple of years is how do we take this scarred land and restore it to its original beauty? How do we get these burned out snags and trees down, cut, chopped up and hauled away? We’re going to try and find some resources; we think probably, if we can find $5,000 to $10,000, which is not a lot of money in the big picture, we can get a lot of the 3,000 acres cleaned up, using commercial machines, large, large commercial machines that would come in and haul trees to a common location and then shred them and haul them away. So, we’re going to find some discretionary funds to do that next.
We haven’t even looked at trying to find money for that type of work until now, a year later, because our initial effort was to find money to build houses and we’re not done with that effort either. We, as I said, have been able to locate $250,000-$300,000worth of external funding to support those reconstruction efforts, but we still need probably, at least, another $200,000 to $300,000 to finish those homes and get people into suitable accommodations.
KUT News: You talked about how you are a retired administrator; is that something, talking about one of the benefits of such a disaster, if there are any, has this become, obviously, a personal project of yours?
Bay-Borelli: Yes. Between the Long Term Recovery Committee and the Spicewood volunteer fire department, I’ve been pretty busy. But, I also am still employed.
KUT News: Oh, you are.
Bay-Borelli: Yeah, I still work. I work for a company in Austin and so they have been very generous in accommodating my schedule, also. I have needed flexibility and we have been able to get that. But, yeah, it’s been a personally rewarding experience. It’s not often that you can see the direct benefits of what you do. If you’re a school administrator as I was for many years, you have a sense that you’re doing good stuff for kids, but they don’t flower right in front of you, you just hope ten years later that all of your efforts will make a difference. Here, if you spend three months trying to find money to build something, you can walk down the street and see it built. There it is, that picture right there is one of the homes that we just got funded. We are trying to not only rebuild homes, but to build them in an environmentally conscious way.
So, one of the initiatives that we’ve emphasized in securing or attempting to secure outside funding is that we’re not just going to build homes, but we’re going to build green homes, environmentally conscious homes. So, this is an example of a grant that we got from the Austin Committee Foundation of $65,000 to build a demonstration home that we can build a lot cheaper; these are small homes, these are not 2,000-3,000 square foot homes, they are 1,200, 1,100 –
Wilburn: The built one is 1,600.
Bay-Borelli: 1,600 square feet. But we can build them for a lot less money, these modular environmentally conscious green homes as we’re calling them. As an example, and we can build them quickly, this will take approximately three weeks –
Wilburn: 60 days from beginning to end –
Bay-Borelli: 60 days from pouring the slab to having people hang pictures on the wall, which is much, much faster than you can build a convention stick built home. So, we wrote a proposal to the Austin Community Foundation to do this as a model, not just for our community, but also for Bastrop and other communities across the country that are looking for economical, environmentally conscious ways to re-establish housing for people after an experience like this and so when we get this finished, we will be using it to communicate to potential funders for our community a solution that is economic and also sharing it with other communities that are in disaster. But, for me personally, when I see something like that being built, I say, you know, I spent time putting together that proposal and brainstorming it with Tommy and the board and others, submitting it, defending it and getting the money and now here it is within 90 days or 120 days from the time of conception, you see the finished product and that’s rewarding, that’s very rewarding. Also, to see the people come in and share with us their appreciation for what we’ve been doing is not something that one takes lightly. It’s very rewarding.
KUT News: I’m curious about how much you guys have interacted with the guys from Bastrop, folks living out in Steiner Ranch, as well.
Bay-Borelli: Early on in the crisis, both Tommy and myself spent a lot of time going back and forth with the Bastrop Recovery Committee, which was also forming at that time. We met with the leadership from that recovery committee to talk about strategies. There are national experts on long term disaster recovery that were meeting with both us and Steiner and Bastrop at the same time, saying, you know, our experience tells us that these are the things you ought be doing early on. They have a guidebook yay thick that says here’s the steps you ought to take in terms of long term disaster recovery. These are tried and true; they’ve been used in other situations. FEMA was here early on and certainly with lots of experience, some of it good, some of it not so good with long term disaster recovery, offering guidance and suggestions and resources early on. So, we were, the Texas community of disaster for a while, trying to brainstorm and problem solve good solutions to what we needed to do. I would say, though, after the first three or four months, we kind of went our separate ways pretty much.
Wilburn: Three months, it cooled down.
Bay-Borelli: Right. And there has been very little communication since then. But, you know, we’re all doing the same stuff and you mentioned it, there is no question that in some instances we’re competing for the same funds. But, I think in a friendly and pleasant way.
KUT News: Would y’all benefit from more communication, do you think?
Bay-Borelli: I think each community has its own –
KUT News: Kind of issues.
Bay-Borelli: Issues to solve, its own players, its own unique problems. Personally, I think we have been very, very successful in, not only galvanizing the community but in doing it without acrimony and doing it with a great deal of community feeling. I’m not sure other communities have been as successful in that regard. It’s been shared with us by folks outside of our recovery committee that the work that we’ve done has been exemplary in terms of pulling together, planning, making things happen. So, we’re comfortable, sort of, on our own at this point.
KUT News: You know, what’s coming up next; what’s next for you guys?
Bay-Borelli: As I said, you know, finishing building the homes for the folks that lost their residences is the immediate current need. The long term need is to make that scar out there go away. To make it a pretty place again and that takes time, it takes the work of man and the work of God both. He’s been helping of late, we’ve had some rain. So, that makes a difference. Our pastures are returning to green; our trees are, the little ones will be growing. The tree people of Austin have been very generous in finding trees for us and we’ve had a couple of tree plantings out there, but it seems so insignificant when you put 300 trees in the ground of 3,000 acres and just see these little sticks and know that in ten years they will be trees, but right now they’re just little sticks. But they will be trees and life will come back to normal. On the large scale of things, we’ll be okay.