Mizzy Zdroj: Overcast days like this it reminds you with the sky so close like it is today, how close it was that day. t’s weird.
KUT News: Did it look like this?
Zdroj: Well, that day, like I said, the alarm went off, my pager went off and actually my daughter, she was 24 at the time, her daddy had just passed on a couple of weeks before that and she had gone up out of state to be with him and she moved back. I just said, “Come back home to Momma, we’ll figure it out.” She moved in that night, the night before the fire with like all of her stuff and all of her daddy’s stuff. I was trying to console her. It was a weekend, nothing much to do, kids were in the pajamas. The pager went off and I thought well, I’m just going to open up the station and get everybody, get everybody ready to get everybody out and I best just stay home with Whitney.
I opened it up not even looking at the sky and when my – my house is right behind the station. It was just right there and when I turned back to go back inside cause the radios were blowing up. Send everything you’ve got, send everything you got. I thought well, maybe I better go ahead and go and when I turned around and I saw the sky for just a split second that Tropical Storm Lee was blowing in and hitting Louisiana and I thought for just a second we were going to get some rain. The whole northern sky was just this huge buildup and I immediately realized that wasn’t a cloud at all; that was the fire and it was going to be bad.
So, I went in and I told my daughters as calm as I could, go ahead and take the two little dogs and take the boys, my twins, and just go up and sit with their dad up where he worked and I gave her the money I had on me, $40 thinking they’d have to eat somewhere, but I wasn’t going to leave until I knew they were gone and by the time they were gone, all the trucks were gone.
One of the other firefighters was evacuating their animals and they had two vehicles and they stopped and I hitched a ride with them up to Station 2. We evacuated people as best we could. We were all – there wasn’t very many of us that day; I think there was – there’s not very many of us on a good day, but that day, I think there was 16 of us, firefighters. We started evacuating best we could. We all grab our phones, too, and we start chain calling people while we were getting ready and while we were evacuating, while we were back burning the highway, just trying to get everybody out and telling them – some of my friends, they had three minutes after I called them. I was like, get out now and about the time she hung with me, she said the sheriff came and was evacuating Horman and they just – they got out with nothing.
The two houses, all the vehicles except for one, almost all their animals, no clothes, no nothing. They opened up the horse pen and only one of the horses came out. We’re still kind of finding animals over at her place. People that had a little more time, we were telling them call everybody, tell everybody to get out. Sorry if I get emotional sometimes. I try not to talk about it and when I do, it’s just like it was yesterday. It’s hard to comprehend that it’s been almost a year. But anyway –
KUT News: If you need to take a break, it’s okay.
Zdroj: Better just to ramble through it. By the time we were able to focus on the actual fire, orders had already been handed down. Save the infrastructure, let it burn over us and go back in and save what wasn’t initially burned, what survived the initial attack cause it was all gonna go, it was all gonna go. Fires leave little patches. Sometimes it’s just a house, sometimes it’s a block and a fire like that just creates its own weather. It creates its own – it’s a breathing, live entity so we decided to try to save our Station 1 over on – or Station 2 on 71 and we back burned on the highway. We were going to try to catch it right there.
Who thinks the fire is going to jump that many lanes with medians and shoulders? We foamed, we wetted down the station real good. We tried to catch it and it started getting nightfall about the time it started coming at us and it was like – I can’t even tell you how many hours later. It was just hours and hours and hours of build up. There’s so much fuel between the ignition point and where we were that it was almost incomprehensible that it would build to the monster that it did. And the whole sky, when it should have been getting dark, was glowing. You couldn’t even look behind you without it glowing. It was all glowing. Just the noises started.
A fire of that size, the sound is louder than a jet engine. It’s horrible loud and over top of that you can hear the explosions. They’re like Doppler radar. You kind of track its progress as it was coming for us, propane tanks and gas cans and just all kinds of things. Cars, things – I mean it was Memorial Day – Labor Day weekend, people are on vacation. They weren’t even home. They left so many things and they were blowing up. It got closer. I mean, at one point, the ground was shaking, the whole ground and when I noticed it, I looked kind of down the line where we were trying to hold and my department is not like most departments, it’s not what a normal citizen would think of as firefighters were. A bunch of retired people, several women. I’m 115 pounds, 45 years old, not exactly what you’d think of as a firefighter and I thought – do we know what we’re doing?
No training can prepare you for this and there were two people on the line that night that were fighting cancer and I thought, “where are the farm boys?” But, I looked at my assistant chief and he was – well, he was in charge of it now, I tell ya. He was the one that was with us on the line, our chief was fighting elsewhere and I thought – alright. He gave me the confidence to have confidence in myself and my training and you could see it. They measured the flame in two different levels.
The flame lick – they got up to about 300 foot in the air and then the convection flame, which is the combustible materials and gasses that are thrown into the sky from the heat rising and then burning as it goes, and that was measured at 2,600 foot in the air. It’s incomprehensible. You start to hear like horses and dogs screaming and that was hard cause you can only log it in for a second because you can’t do anything, you have to do your job so that’s what we did. It came on, jumped the highway like it was nothing, it felt like kind of like a wave and it just hit the top of those trees and off it went.
It never even slowed down, so we immediately pulled back, tried to save the station and what we could of the businesses and the houses that were right adjacent and behind it and just, I mean, it took one after the next, after the next, I mean just that fast. We saved a few of them, but it was awful hard as a firefighter to watch that many of them go and nothing you could do about it. There were houses just blowing up. There were quarter acre at a time on either side of you just combusting at once, just boom, boom, down – never seen anything like it.
KUT News: Do you remember the first time that you saw the fire, itself? I mean you saw the smoke obviously.
Zdroj: Yeah, it was – well, the convection glow you could see from Austin, but the actual flames, it was actually right before – okay, little break there, I saw the flames for the first time as they were coming to where we were holding on Highway 71. It was insane. I saw vortexes, like fire tornados that day. Some of them that had flipped on their side and as you’re looking at it, it would pull in. Like a tornado on its side and it made like that tunnel that was whirling and it was like looking into hell, it was. You just can’t describe that to somebody and the sound of it is – I’ve heard tornados, I’ve heard hurricanes, never saw nothing like this, never heard nothing like this. I hope I never hear it again.
KUT News: How did that first night go? I mean, obviously you were doing evacuations and then you were fighting the fire itself – how long were you out there?
Zdroj: Well, we were out there pretty much until we dropped. It’s hard as a firefighter to leave a fire that’s not contained. We realized that this was not going to be a containable fire for a while, but these were our neighbors, these were our friends and at that point, a lot of us still had houses. This was our community and you can’t just take a break and watch it burn. We’re not going to do that. We’re volunteers. We do it for a reason. We don’t do it because there’s any compensation. We do it because we feel that it’s our civic duty and the community depends on us and we do not want to let anybody down and for some of us…I’m an artist. I’m more sensitive to people.
Every time we lost a house, it was such a blow personally. This was in our district and we were losing our peoples’ homes. We all – after it jumped, we all got assignments and it’s kind of a blur really. I went to several assignments that night. The water tower actually blew, it caught on fire and it was put out of commission relatively early into that fight so we had no water. No water in the hydrants, no water. That was frightening. It’s impossible to fight a fire, it’s impossible to protect yourself as a firefighter without water so they immediately started trucking water in and we set up big dump stations, these portable tanks on the highway and, of course, the highway had already been shut down and that was my last assignment.
We were all and it was well after light – they’d come in with the tanks and dump it and firefighters from all over were coming as fast as they could and we were trying to keep them full and they came around and told us you’re Heart of Pines, you need to stand down for a while. My husband worked at the little convenience store and I went there. I had no idea where my kids were. I had no idea. I thought he would be there. I knew the road was closed so the store would be closed and I went there and there was a few refugees there. He was one of them. He had sent the kids with my daughter onto Austin and one of the little dogs so it was just him and my little wiener dog and I told him the house is still standing for now.
I was so tired and I was so hungry and the only thing I had to eat – he went back into the store and he got me a little can of potted meat and I sat in there just black soot all over me and I woofed down that little can of potted meat and we had a little tiny car and I curled up in the back with that little wiener dog, just shaking and I tried to get some sleep. I think I was there like 20 or 30 minutes and I told my husband, I said, I’m going to go back on the line and I went back on the line again for about 13 hours that second day. I was with the – a crew with the Texas Forest Service fighting on Gosha Trace. It’s a kind of unpaved road closer to Bastrop State Park and, of course, Bastrop State Park was already burning and we were assigned to keep this close to our homes if we could divert the flames and we did.
We successfully diverted those flames and save those houses. It was a lot of God’s hand in it, too. But the way the wind was blowing, I knew that it was coming, it was coming for my place and I had a little subsistence farm. I had 48 rabbits, raised a lot of rabbits for me eating and to sell and donkey and a bunch of chickens and dogs and cats, of course. So, when we went – we had to go by my house to rehab the vehicle and I said “Well, can we stop? I’ve got to let my donkey out.” We stopped and all I – we were already fixing to be reassigned. I flipped the latch on the donkey pen and I flipped the latch on the chicken house and I took the dogs off of the runs and I didn’t even look at the rabbits. I feel a lot of guilt to this day for not trying to dump all those rabbits out, but the next morning; I think I got two hours of sleep that night. The next morning, as soon as the light hit, you could see the whole place. It was – the whole place was just rolling with smoke. We had been staying in our car in Smithfield. I told my husband, I said I think that’s our house; I think all of it’s gone. I said I’ve got to get back on the line and so I did. I went back to get debriefed, to get briefed through the morning and my chief was talking to somebody else and he was talking that Station 1 had made it and that was the station that was adjacent to my home and I thought for a minute “sweet.” It didn’t, but he said that there was a donkey running loose and that I needed to go secure before I could go back on the line; that she’d be a risk if – he knew that I needed to go.
So I did and I’m on the side of the road where my house used to be and it’s still smoking and there was some couple of little kittens that were burnt real bad and that donkey a couple of chickens and I just held onto that donkey by the neck and I just cried. I was so glad that she was alive. I was so glad that something survived; I don’t know how to this day that her and those few animals made it. But civilians were still finding ways through the line and one of them stopped, thank God, and she said “Mizzy, I haven’t got a trailer, but I’ll walk that donkey and I’ll take it to my place.” It’s safe and it was like a mile to her place. I tried to argue with her, but she wouldn’t hear it. She took that donkey and walked her. The donkey was burnt a little bit, but we got her fixed up and I handed a couple of little kittens that were burnt to another bunch of people – just I couldn’t leave them there.
The chickens I had no choice. I left them and there were just a few of them left. I went back on the line again and it just went on and on and on just for weeks and that’s all you did. You got a few hours of sleep, woofed down some food and back on the line. And it was finally declared dead the end of the first week in October. It had burned over a month and what it left was terrible.
KUT News: After that first couple of days, was it pretty much just was everyday like the other? Did it all just blur together for you?
Zdroj: I can remember every place I was. I have no timeline on it in my mind. After that initial crossing of 71, I couldn’t tell you what day I was there or who I was with, but I’ve become a little more reclusive now. I’ll drive through an area and I’ll just start crying or I’ll just go inside my head because I can remember it, I can see it, I can smell it, I can hear it and it’s like that for a lot of us. Volunteer firefighters, we’re just regular people; we’re artists and truck drivers and office workers, teachers. We don’t just – we didn’t just fight this thing, we live here and I remember being at one house and we were fighting so hard to save it. It had a swing set in the backyard and we ended up losing that house and the house has been cleared off now. I’ve driven back by it, but I never forgot the pain in my heart that those poor people had to come back to nothing like I did; that their kids had to come back to nothing like my kids did.
KUT News: Do you end up blaming yourself for that? That doesn’t sound right.
Zdroj: Well, I don’t – we try not to – there’s no direct blame that we put on ourselves for any of this, but it’s a disappointment. We lost two human lives in this and one of them, Mr. Farr; he was just right down the road. He lives a few properties from mine and to know that we lost somebody in our district; it’s hard to deal with. To know that we lost – there are people out here that kind of fell through the cracks after all of this. Help that people gave everybody, people without insurance, people that maybe they own another piece of property so that they didn’t qualify for the help, but what the people above don’t understand is that they gave that little house to their momma and it’s a one bedroom house. They can’t sell that. Their momma lives there or they own a piece of river property with their brother and their brother won’t sell. There’s people out here that fell between the cracks and that’s the ones that I feel like we let down. We’ve got a family friend that I just wish – I wish I knew how to just make it all better for them. They’re good people; they really are, but I’m going to go help them with what I can, when I can.
KUT News: You talked about sort of collective sense of PTSD out here. Can you explain?
Zdroj: I’ve been told by the counselors that everybody out here has PTSD in some varying form. I know my family has it. It’s everyone, it’s not just firefighters, it’s not just people who lost their homes. It’s the entire community. It was so epically emotional and it came out of nowhere, something you’d never expect. You would never expect your whole community to burn. Six percent of our district is left and other districts have damage. A lot of it – the evacuations, the shelters, the – just the level of emotion and stress that people went under. We’re all a little lost to some degree or another and some of us are getting counseling and some of us out here are going to do it on our own, but we’ll be talking and we’ll lose our place.
It always tends to come back to the fires somehow. You can’t get away from it. Everybody knows somebody that’s rebuilding or that’s moving away. Everybody that has rebuilt – you’re doing dishes in your nice new house and you’re looking out the window and a year ago it was so beautiful. There wasn’t any sunlight that would hit the ground. It was that shady. It was verdant and green and now it’s just burnt sticks in the sand. You figure a year down the road there’d be more progress, but building houses and helping neighbors – life goes on. There’s some of the neighbors that they’re going to leave their land exactly like God left it and see what happens I guess. There’s other people who are having the Forest Service come in and help them remove the trees and replant, but it’s such a big change. The fire – that took a lot away from us.
Well, now, in order to make progress and take these trees down, it’s like a finality to it. It’s a second blow. I know they’re dead trees, we all do. Not a leaf on any of them, but it’s the ghost that remains. It’s like a memory and when you take them down, it’s just going to be such a blow to us. We know it’s got to be done, but –
KUT News: When do you think you’ll end up taking your trees down?
Zdroj: Well, FEMA came and marked 48 of them that were close to the house that if they fell they could damage the improvements and we’re on the list. They’ll get to us. My husband and I have taken down probably 50 and you can’t tell it. My husband’s been – when he takes one of any size down, he’ll make a little cross with the chainsaw out of the stump, kind of a little headstone, but the Forest Service – and there are several agencies that’s working towards reforestation – and most of them are saying it’s going to be about a year longer. It’s just so vast. It’s 38,000 acres. That don’t happen overnight or in a year or in two years apparently.
KUT News: That’s tens of thousands of trees, hundreds of thousands.
Zdroj: There was a 1,000 trees on my place alone. Not including the park and it’s – you’d have to talk with the Asplundh people or bluebonnet, but just what they’ve taken down has got to number 50,000 or better easy. It’s got to.
KUT News: So, what happened after the fire? Were you able to take a break there?
Zdroj: After the fire – until the fire was deemed dead, we were on alert always. Some of our people had moved out of district who had lost their homes. Others of us found lodging in our district and those of us who stayed, we went to every little report, smoke report, everything and then there’s still the accidents and the – we do rescue, as well. After it was declared dead, it’s hard to quantify that really. It was such a huge part of our lives that we almost were lost again. Okay, well, the fires out, now what?
Now, we have to deal with reality. The fire was almost an escapism for us. As long as we were putting out fires, we were okay. When we weren’t putting out fires, then we had to deal with okay, now what? And the now what for a lot of us was so painful. I didn’t start clearing my property just like a lot of people until October, November and sifting through the ashes, I can’t tell somebody how hard it is. Not to have a spoon. You don’t have anything. Nothing. But you sift through the ashes and you find little things. I’m actually a artist so I went into that mode. I started looking at the twisted silverware and the little bits and pieces that used to be – things that I could recognize, but they were ruined.
I thought well, I’m going to go ahead and hold onto these and I incorporate them into my art now. That way, it takes something that could have been a mournful sorrowful thing and I can turn it into something that makes other people happy. I can – it might not be grandma’s broach anymore, but it can go on, on new merit, on a new path, on a new journey, it don’t have to end. My grandma’s broach is still out there; it’s just in a different form now. A lot of us have had to find that positive moment and we have all done it in our own way to get fortified enough to do this. It would have been easy to leave here. A lot of people did and I understand I do. We made the decision early on to stay.
You start getting it cleaned up and it almost looks worse cause then you go, oh gosh, look at all of these trees and what are we going to do for a house? Like, we didn’t have insurance.
I was extremely fortunate that day three in the fire I remember taking a knee and praying. I don’t know if the smoke had gotten to me or something just told me, well, you ain’t prayed in a while girl, maybe now’s a good time to do it. The house was already gone and I just said, well, for the first time I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what to do, just give me a sign and I’ll keep trying to do the right thing.
It wasn’t more than a week or two later than the Extreme Makeover people contacted our department and they came out and talked to us and I thought well, you know, they’re going to come and talk to us. Reporters came from all over the place. This is just somebody – this ain’t going to mean anything, but I talked to them and they followed us through for several months from living in the car to living at the river to living with another fire fighting family and I kept telling myself the whole time “nah, this ain’t going to happen to us.” And then I started thinking when it got to be the end of November and they’re still pretty involved in our lives I thought well, I better put my two cents worth in. I’m real good at that.
So, I started telling them well, there’s a awful lot of people that lost their homes; instead of one house, I think y’all should build a bunch of houses and build like five little houses. Nobody out here needs a big house. We didn’t have a big house to begin with. They just kind of shook their heads and looked at me and patted me on my little head and then, but it was a really good experience. It was – it kind of put us in a limbo for a little bit cause we didn’t know what to do and I finally said, well, it’s time for me to get back to my land whether this happens or not. Then December eighth I’m moving out to my property and so I took some donation money and bought a little shed kit and me and one of my friend’s daddy’s, an older veteran, not to Columbus, but in Smithfield, came out and we worked on that shed and worked on that shed.
I put a sleeping loft in it. We were ready to move into that because it’s still at this point I’m thinking there – I heard rumors about other families that they were looking at and we were sitting at a Thanksgiving event, my kids and I with a bunch of other people that had lost their homes and one of the other ladies was talking about a family and that they had lost their parents a few years ago and they lived with an aunt and their house had burnt and my son, Ash, said “well, I hope they get that house then ’cause we’re going to be okay; we still got a momma and dad.” And I thought, that’s an awful good kid right there.
So, we built that little shed and we were going to move into it and the day before we were going to move into it, they pulled up in front of the house that we were staying at and the whole department was with them. I just couldn’t believe it. It was a miracle, it really was a miracle. And I still feel like that every minute of the day. This is all God and the community. I live in a wonderful community. We’ve been through a lot and for those people that have put their lives on hold to help my family; I’m glad I moved my family here. This is where we belong. I’m glad we decided to stay. God bless them.
KUT News: Did you know what was happening when they pulled up?
Zdroj: Well, I did real quick. They hadn’t – just cameras and people, it was crazy. They scooted us down here to where my house was and there was so many people. had never seen that many people. Just to know that that many people had come for my family, I can’t tell you how touched we were. Still am. I got a sign painted out there in front of my house that says God Bless You All, because if it wasn’t for everybody that was here, we would have made it, but it would have been real, real tough.
Some days it’s tough here. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like and thank God that we don’t and for the other families that are still out there, I keep hoping that Habitat for Humanity will come and I guess they’re getting started. But there’s always tragedies, there’s always natural disasters, there’s always somebody who needs help and so I think Texas needs to take care of Texas. Take care of other people, Colorado, send them when they need us, but remember, there are still people here, there’s families here with kids that they still haven’t got a place. Community service, that’s what we’re about.
KUT News: So, can you just explain going into as little or as much detail as you care to, when they started work on the house, what they were doing, exactly?
Zdroj: They started work on the house December eighth. They pulled up in front of the house and they already had crews here and they sent us off for seven days. They always send the family away so it’ll be a total surprise. Our parents had come, family members and just thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers and they worked day and night. I’ve seen a few pictures. My dad said it was like going to County Fair. It was amazing.
KUT News: They built this house in seven days?
Zdroj: Seven days, yep. Decorated, painted, landscaped. The animals. They build animal shelters and pens. My art studio cause, of course, my studio had burned. They gave us some new animals. Rabbits and chickens and just it was lit up for Christmas. I had never seen anything so beautiful. They gave my kids scholarships, all three of them, four year scholarships. There was no way that we were going to be able, on our own, to put our kids through school. We were really trying to push the little ones already to get scholarships. We didn’t know how we were going to do that. My oldest daughter, with her daddy being sick and then passing on, he didn’t leave her anything. I think the boat had about sailed on her going to school, but she’s starting in the fall, she starts in a month. Ain’t that something? That’s cool and she’s a good kid. I’m so glad she’s going. I just can’t thank everybody enough.
KUT News: When you think about where you were this time last year or what you were doing this time last year; how is that compared to right now, to one year later. I mean, not since the fires, but even before the fires?
Zdroj: Everybody’s life out here is different now. You look back a year ago and we’ve just all been through so much. We knew a year ago that we could have an event, a large fire event. Our departments had put us on alert. The conditions were so dry. There were so many variables that day that went into the making of that monster. The drought had dried this place up. It had stressed the trees out so bad that a big percentage of the loblollies had succumbed to those pine bark beetles and so they were dead or dying, a lot of them The oak trees had that oak wilt and a lot of them were stressed and the grass and the pine duff was so thick and it was just like a little tender box and the winds were just whipping that day.
Mike Fisher from emergency management people in Bastrop, he said that at one point the fire traveled 17 miles in two hours. That’s fast. If it hadn’t been for the winds, it wouldn’t have whipped this up. There were just too many variables. We knew it was a possibility and so we were on edge a year ago before the fire started for months. We’d had a fire at Colavista that the Black Hawks came in. We had called in for air support and we were out cutting line, my crew was in 106 degrees, hot and then you add the fire heat to it and then you know your gear you have to wear and I ended up in the back of the ambulance that day, just heat exhaustion. We knew it was going to be bad just from the little fires and we had no idea. Nobody could have had any idea.
KUT News: Has this whole thing change not just your property, but has it changed the way that you feel about this area or this region or this town, the land here? Has it changed the way that you think about your safety, your family’s safety?
Zdroj: The way the place has changed is it’s difficult to talk about. I love this land. My husband and I were married on this land. Just miles and miles and miles of beautiful forest is just gone, but it’s the land. Everybody who stayed we’re still in love with this place. It kind of needs us right now. I try to look at it like we were so fortunate and blessed to be able to live in such a beautiful place for that time and it was just a pivotal moment in this place’s history and we happened to be the ones that were here for it. This forest has been here since the Plasticine era. The Plasticine era, that’s – I don’t know how long ago that way, but I’m sure it’s a long time. And for it to be such a primordial forest. That’s why we all moved here. The quiet, the trees, the seclusion. A all of that is gone now.
So, as a civilian, I still love this place and I’ll still remain here and I’ll help do everything I can for the erosion control and it burnt out the humus in the soil so we’re having to replace the soil, basically. Plant the trees. I just saw a little spotted fawn yesterday and I cried cause I was so happy to see it because I found so many burnt. But then I look at it with a firefighter’s eye and it’s what we call a dirty burn where it doesn’t incinerate like the back of my land is incinerated. That probably if it caught fire it would have to be a heck of a fire blowing in to really do anymore damage. But this dirty burn stuff where it kilt the trees, but there is still plenty of fuel. It’s terrifying.
There is no shade here, so that the plants that are growing, it’s a different kind of fuel. Instead of the little pine duff where you can get like a creeping fire, these weeds and these pasture weeds that are coming up, there substantially larger which means that they have more fuel volume so if they do ignite, it’s going to be instead of a six inch fire, it’s going to be several feet and it’s going to go from a creeping fire to a running fire and if that happens and it dries out and we get a running fire and it gets up into some of this dirty burn and we have any wind at all, it’s going to be hell again. Hell on wheels. Just tearing through this place. That’s one reason I want to get at least around the house a little more cleaned out, these trees that didn’t make it. I’ll miss them, but I see them as a threat to my family and we’ll replant some healthy ones.
KUT News: Do you think about this stuff a lot? Do you think about either cars in the future or do you think about that fire a lot?
Zdroj: I think about fire constantly now. Before the fire, I’ve been to several big fires. I’ve been to structure fires, I’ve been to fires that lasted several days and they’re intense, but you put them out. A fire like this is – this will stick with all of us for the rest of our lives even after these burnt trees are gone and we’ve replaced what we could and this place will be different. It’ll be a new normal. It’ll be pretty again. It’s never going to be the same ever, but it’s a constant reminder that that’s the constant reminder. I’m worried about things like economics. I used to never worry about economics. I think about these ten little towns.
The State Parks were the life blood; the tourism was the life blood of these communities. I’m worried that without the parks, without the trees that that was the economic vase of these communities. Bastrop is more than just its trees though. They have such history and the river and, but I worry. I just – you can’t help, but worry about fire. You can’t help, but worry about what’s going to happen. It’s just a lot of being unsure and it trickles down. I try to be real positive in front of the kids. I’ve got nine-year-old twin boys and I try to be real strong for them and I’ve always tried to raise them in the good country way. You work hard, you’re honest, you do the right thing and things will be alright. I get them out there and we work hard and we do the right thing and it just seems like it’s taking forever and then what after that?
First, it was the fire and it was what after the fire? And then now it’s this and well, what’s after this? I went back to visit my family in Northeast Oklahoma and it’s so beautiful and green there and I just kept looking around thinking this place could burn. I see beautiful pictures and postcards and calendars and I just think it could burn. It gets to your psyche if you let it. You can’t let it get to your kid’s psyche, though. You can’t let them know. They’re doing real good. My kids are doing real good and the land’s on the mend. It’s going to take hard work, but it’s on the mend. And we’re going to be okay and Bastrop’s going to be okay. Smithfield, it’s going to be okay. It’s just going to take us consciously putting effort into being okay, but they’re strong people out here. Good strong families and that’ll happen.
KUT News: Can you tell me the story again about how you became a volunteer firefighter?
Zdroj: Well, I moved to this area in 2005. I was driving on 71 and I saw those pine trees and I thought this is a beautiful area and I loved it and so I started driving back roads and I drove down Cottletown and there was Station 1, Heart of the Pines VFD and there was a for sale on the land right beside it behind it and boy – I bought it. I snapped it up. It was a sign to me. My granddad was a firefighter. He was Captain. I went to my first fire when I was about seven. Grandpa was watching me and there wasn’t anybody else to watch me and a fire broke out. It was an old dairy barn and it was a night fire. He threw me in the back of his truck, his pickup and I can remember being parked on the road. He had given me a little blanket or a coat or something and I was covering up, but I just watched out the window and I watched the family come to the road and they were leading cows out and I remember that fire, that barn was – it was a substantial dairy barn and it was on fire and it was just such a striking moment in my mind as a child to see that peaceful night and then it was this huge fire and all the activity and there was my grandpa and that was back when the fire coats used to be real long and it looked like a super hero out there. I was hooked after that.
I never thought, though, of being a firefighter – ever. I lived where there were paid firefighters until I moved here and when I realized that there were no paid firefighters; civilians don’t realize it, Americans don’t realize that in 80% of America when you pick up the phone and you have a fire, it’s volunteers that come. With volunteerism in America kind of wavering, there may be places or a time that there’s a fire and you pick up the phone and nobody’s going to come. People need to understand that. Community service, you need to do what you can. Not everybody can fight fire. I understand that. It takes somebody with a little screw loose to fight fire, but you can do something for your community and if you think you might have an interest in fighting fire, by all means, go to your local volunteer fire station. They will be more than happy to share information with you.
There’s a lot of courses that you can take online so that you don’t have to be away from your family, or there are a few certifications. I’m fixing to go to a certification where I have to be gone for a week from my family, but that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve chosen to do for my community and that’s just part of it. Everybody should volunteer. If you live in a community, you should serve that community in whatever capacity that you can.
My name is Mizzy Zdroj. I’m 45. I live in Smithfield, between the two parks on Cotteltown Road. I’m a volunteer firefighter with Heart of the Pines. I’m 8821 and we lost our house September 5, 2011 to the Bastrop Complex Wild Fire.