Nichelle Bielinski lives in Steiner Ranch, a community in Northwest Austin, Texas. On March 22, 2012 she spoke with KUT News about her experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Bielinski: We actually saw the fire in the afternoon on the fourth, right around, I’d say, between two and three. We smelled the smoke and the wind was blowing and we have a topiary urn that’s on the front porch. It fell over, so my brother-in-law went to go pick it up, came back in the house and said, “I smell and I see a lot of smoke across 620,” and that’s when we saw it.
KUT News: So the topiary fell because of the wind, right?
Bielinski: Yes, and it’s a tall topiary. So, it was pretty heavy, as well. So, we picked it up, went across the Greenbelt and we could see the flames and the smoke across 620 close to Mansfield Dam.
KUT News: And you were with your husband?
Bielinski: Actually, I had quite a few family members that weekend because it was Labor Day weekend. My husband, my mother, my daughter, my brother-in-law and myself.
KUT News: And so you were all together at your home, which is also your – your studio?
Bielinski: Actually not.
KUT News: Where were you?
Bielinski: We were actually home. I don’t work out of my home anymore. We have a commercial building within Steiner Ranch near the Welcome Center and that’s where the actual school’s facility is. So, it’s only a mile from the home, but we were home actually in our physical home at that time.
KUT News: Is it a home in a subdivision or in the woods or what?
Bielinski: It’s a home in Steiner Ranch. It’s actually a huge ranch of about 4,000 homes with unfortunately really one way out, so I’d say maybe 7,000 to 10,000 people live there. We’re out in the country.
KUT News: And so you were at home and you were entertaining and so, you heard your topiary fall?
Bielinski: Right, we go outside, we pick it up and then we go in to the Greenbelt and because the wind was blowing in gusts of had to be over 60 miles per hour, all at once and then back and forth and then 30, 60, 40, we knew with that heat and the wind that it was like a Santa Ana condition. We were formerly from California, so we’d been through Santa Ana conditions and wildfires and earthquakes and mudslides, but this is the first time we’d see anything so terrible in Texas. So, when we went to the end of the greenbelt, my husband and I walked over with my daughter and she was seven at the time, and we looked over and my husband said, “If that fire jumps, we have 30 minutes to get out of this neighborhood,” and while we were standing there, it jumped. So…
KUT News: And it jumped the highway?
Bielinski: It jumped Highway 620, went into the Greenbelt in front of us and the flames disappeared, but the smoke was there. I was really surprised that you can’t always see the flames. You see the smoke travel and then when the fire hits a tree, it goes up like a – like a rocket and then you see the flames and then the flames disappear again and then it travels more and you just see the smoke. So, you’re not ever really sure exactly where the flames are until they’re almost right on top of you. I always wonder how people got caught in fires. Now I understand.
KUT News: Because it’s the smoke and you think you’re okay. It’s the smoke coming first.
Bielinski: You think you have more time than you really do.
KUT News: So, it jumped 620 and you were standing in the Greenbelt and so then what did you do?
KUT News: Did you feel like your life was…
Bielinski: Oh, we knew that we had to be on alert. In California, there were sirens. There was a huge amount of emergency personnel. You were prepared because you knew the seasons. You knew what was likely to happen because they happened all the time, regularly, each year. Here, we don’t have that type of system in place and if we did have it in place, we just weren’t aware of because we’ve become really complacent living here for 10 years and nothing happening. So, my husband really kicked into gear. He turned to us and to the neighbors that had gathered and he said, “We really need to gather what we can and think about getting out of here.”
So, we went back to the house. He took my daughter inside and my mother and my brother-in-law were already inside and told them that the fire was coming closer and I started calling the neighbors. So, we sort of split what were doing, but we were standing in very near locations and out of the four phone numbers that I called, I was only able to reach one neighbor who happened to be shopping at a local Target. So, she was able to come home and gather her family and her pets and leave and during that time, about 15 minutes had passed, and a policeman came down the street and told us to leave. So, we told them there were pets around and asked if the fireman could get the pets and he said that there really weren’t enough fire personnel for people, so we just all did what we could.
KUT News: And so with your other neighbors who weren’t home, they were – were you able – you weren’t able to get into their homes. You were just able to get your own things out, you know, grab a few things. Is that – is that pretty much what happened next?
Bielinski: Right we were able – exactly. We were told not to go back to the houses before we left because, you know, you could just walk across the street or, you know, I went and knocked on my neighbor’s door. I left a message. I got a busy signal at another place and another voicemail for the other neighbor across the street and, like I said, I did get to speak to one. During that time period, which 15 minutes passes really quickly, the wind and smoke started to arrive. So, the smoke was grayish-white. It was full of ash. It wasn’t black like in the movies and I understand now that’s because a structure wasn’t burning at that point and so, it started to become harder to breathe. The policeman was still there and as my family, because we had three adults other than myself in the house, were able to pull the cars out because the policeman had told us to leave and I was starting to go back to my neighbor’s house and the policeman turned me around and told me to get in the car. So, basically, we got in the car and I – my composure left at that point. I was sobbing all the way to HEB, which was the gathering point for the neighborhood, an unofficial gathering point, because we really didn’t know where to go. We just left and stopped at the – the largest parking lot and that was HEB at Four Points.
KUT News: So, you went inside and you called your neighbors and about that time the policeman came by?
Bielinski: I was standing outside the door. I never did get to go back in the house.
KUT News: You never got to go back in your house?
Bielinski: No, I didn’t get to go back in my house.
KUT News: You never went back in your house after you went out to see…
KUT News: The fire?
Bielinski: Correct, I didn’t – so, I wasn’t able to get anything of personal value to me, but when my husband went in, my daughter – we had told my daughter, my little girl – I said she was seven, she was actually six then. She just had a birthday – to get what was important to her and my mother was gathering medicine and things like that because she has asthmatic – my daughter has asthmatic symptoms during pollen season, so she was gathering her medicine and my daughter – she actually got her favorite pillow, a little mermaid that we had gotten at the store in California, a little doll and her Spy Kids DVD and stood right outside the door along with the family cat and waited and everybody cooperated so well, which was amazing, because we were all in panic mode, but we were calm in panic mode, if that makes any sense and we all came together at the same meeting point and, like I said, they got in the cars and then I started walking back toward the house that’s closest to me because they were out of town, but we had known the dogs were there because we could hear them barking.
They actually had a dog sitter that was actually taking care of them, so we knew the dog sitter would come back, but that’s when the policeman stopped us from going back over to their house because at that point, we were going to break the window to see if we could get them out, but we weren’t able to. I didn’t get to go back in and – there just wasn’t enough time because one of us had to look for friends and one of us, because of the other adults in the house and my husband went in – was able to gather what’s closest and what’s most dear and then we had to go because the policeman was adamant about leaving because it was just took close at that point. It was difficult to see.
There was a lot of smoke at that point and so I got in the car, we drove away and as we were driving, we saw the fire trucks coming down the street looking to see where the flames had gotten at that point because at that point, we could see flames just across the street. I didn’t see any structures on – on fire at that time, but my other adjacent neighbor was using a hose and had a bandana across his face and was trying to hose off his garage – the roof of the garage at that point, because the ashes were flowing into our garage as we pulled the cars out and we headed down the street and when we saw the fire trucks, we thought, “Oh, okay. It’s going to be okay,” and when we gathered at HEB, that’s when the main confusion had started. We didn’t know what had burned. We didn’t know where the fire had been stopped and my husband made a comment, “I think they’re gonna stop the fire at Schleicher and Medina River. If they could just stop the fire at Schleicher, the neighborhood won’t burn,” and that’s exactly what they did. They stopped it at the perpendicular street to ours and on 24 houses burned, because if it passed Schleicher, with that kind of wind, we would have had another Bastrop within Steiner.
KUT News: So you had – so they – they drew a line in the sand. They – they – that’s where the fire trucks went?
Bielinski: And that’s where we were guessing they would go because obviously they didn’t have time to talk to us and, you know, the neighborhood was starting to evacuate at that time, as well. So, basically our street and the adjacent street, where the houses burned, were the ones that were leaving first because it was imminent for us and as we gathered at HEB, you know, we sat for hours in the parking lot and we saw all the neighbors starting to come because in our community of Steiner Ranch, it’s only about three miles long, everybody’s a neighbor and with my business, you know, obviously you see a lot of families that flow in and out of the music school each week. So we started to recognize people and they would tell us what they knew and we were able to talk in the parking lot at Four Points HEB, but no one had any real information, no real time information, as to what was going on. Later, I found out that there were a lot of Facebook comments back and forth, but I actually was too in shock. I wasn’t smart enough to actually get on Facebook even though some of the – not all of it was true, at least there was some guess as to what was happening.
KUT News: So, what happened next? You’re in the parking lot.
Bielinski: So, we’re in the parking lot, we gather with friends that we didn’t plan on meeting there, but we saw. So we, you know, all stood together asking questions, waiting for cars to come in, finding out where do we go next and we had no idea where to go. I keep stressing that because that was the main thing about the entire tragedy. We didn’t know what to do or where to go and the only reason that we were ask lucky as we were is the fact that everybody helped each other to help us all get out. The authorities helped by educating us later, after the fire and if there were, you know, procedures in place, I feel really sad that I, personally, didn’t even try to seek them out to learn what to do in case of a disaster in our area. So, I had to learn that, you know, you really have to be prepared to help the authorities save yourself. So, don’t rely on the system, you know, be ready.
KUT News: And so you were in the parking lot and they – and nobody could tell you where to go?
Bielinski: No, but I got a lot of reports that the music school was on fire.
KUT News: Oh, now.
Bielinski: I sure did, so here I am thinking, “Well, the fireman had made it to Medina River Way, which was my street, so they probably saved my house,” but when people kept saying that the building that the music school was on fire, I thought, “Okay, it’s just a building. We can rebuild it. You know, we can replace the instruments, all the people are out because it’s the holiday. There are no kids there and most of the families are, you know, probably already aware,” because word does travel fast in this tight-knit community of ours. So, that’s what I was thinking. I was thinking, “What do I do next week?” because it’s the beginning of the school year for us, for our music school. I need to contact everybody. I was thinking about the steps to take to make sure no one showed up at the school.
KUT News: And so, where did you – where did you go? Where did you spend the night? Where did you…
Bielinski: We actually called one of my good friends and she lives in Canyon Creek and she actually asked us to come over, so we – we grabbed a – we didn’t even have time to get – to get a cat carrier because we have a cat and we – my mother went to Wal-Mart, I mean, Target or Wal-Mart or one of those and grabbed one and then we, as a family, went over to her house. We went to my friend’s house in Canyon Creek and we waited. We tried to get news and there really wasn’t any because no one could get close enough to give us some and my husband got in the car with a neighbor and drove around through Lake Way, came up through 620 to try to see if our house was still there because you could actually see our street from Mansfield Dam. It’s hard to see the homes because of the trees, but because that’s a big greenbelt in front of us, you can see and he called and he said, “That whole area is on fire. I can’t see the house, but the area is on fire.” So, we ended up getting a hotel out in the Arboretum because everything else was booked and we went and checked in there and then the next morning, we turned on the news and it was so surreal because it was – I believe it was Ann Curry was – there was – they were showing an aerial view of our home and it was gone and that’s how we knew it was gone because we saw it on TV.
KUT News: On the Today Show?
Bielinski: On the Today Show, because I love NBC and I couldn’t believe it. I said, “That looks some familiar and wow, that’s our area,” and the home wasn’t there. So, it doesn’t really sink in until you see it, though. So, my husband and I – the day that Rick Perry came, he came out to Steiner Ranch and met at the elementary school to give an actual news report and an update to the media and after that, the media and the fire marshal was gathering at the St. Luke’s on the Lake Episcopal Church. So, we went there and we waited to see, you know, when we could get in and that type of thing and that’s when we got our real news, when we actually physically went to a news conference. In between that, in between the fire and that particular day, which I don’t remember, but I believe it was a Tuesday, so the fire was on a Sunday, so we had a couple of days, we had driven down 620 and we had gone and parked near Mansfield Dam and there were binoculars in our car and so we looked through the trees and we saw this brick wall that was leaning and we thought, even though it was brick, you know, it doesn’t sink in, “Oh, someone’s fence had fallen,” because we had a bicycle on the side of the house and there was a fence that had fallen on the bike and the bike was mangled, but it was actually the wall to our home. Now, the trees were gone, so we could see through the binoculars that our home wasn’t there. The only thing that was standing was a portion of the front brick wall with the numbers – our street address was standing and that was it and a little tiny portion of the back corner.
KUT News: And that’s after you’d seen it on the Today Show?
Bielinski: Right, we saw it on the Today Show. We drove and then my – my friends and people that meet us or people that come to the music school say, “Oh, you were so composed when I saw you on TV,” or “You’re so calm now,” and that’s because they didn’t see me have a meltdown on 620 when I first saw – when I was standing there on Mansfield Dam and then I saw the house was gone, so by the time they let us into the neighborhood, I was as prepared as I thought I could be.
KUT News: What did you see on – on television? You saw – you say you saw your house was gone. Was it – did you see that – that wall?
Bielinski: It looked very much like the – when my husband’s watching the History Channel, he’s watching the war, he’s from Poland, so he’s really interested in any news from World War II because his family lived through it and he got a different type of propaganda than we did, you know, so he’s interested in the facts. So, when you’re watching the History or the Military Channel at this point and you see the rubble of what Warsaw was after the bombs, that’s what it looked like. It looked like the house had exploded and there was nothing but crumpled pieces and mangled things everywhere and they were not even at the house some of them. Some of them were across the street and the wind and the fire made its own wind, which is something also I didn’t know a fire could do and it moved things. So, what we saw was rubble, a couple of things standing up, burned trees and rubble and my front lawn was still green.
KUT News: How did you recognize it?
Bielinski: Because we have two live oak trees, two gigantic trees that are on either side of the driveway and then a green lawn to the right. We could see the lawn, it was brilliant green and we could see the trees and then there was nothing else. So, that’s how we saw that from the street.
KUT News: You recognized the unburned?
Bielinski: We recognized the unburned and if those two trees and that little – we have a very, very tiny green lawn, but the little portion of green that was there, we recognized the pattern of the trees and the green and we were fascinated by its color because it had never really been that green, so – or we never noticed before. So, we saw that and we kind of knew where the house was from the dam. We had a general direction, even though it was in the distance and then we could see. So, basically, we got out with our cars and my husband was able to grab his laptop from work and those items and that Spy Kids DVD. I have to tell Robert Rodriguez that my daughter saved that Spy Kids DVD. That fascinates me that she thought that was so important, but yeah, that pillow and that Spy KidsDVD and whatever was already in the car. So, basically what we were wearing and I thought my mom was getting the medicine, but she wasn’t able to get it all. She just grabbed a couple of things and left – we left. So, we were in one hotel for one night and then State Farm, which is our insurance company, moved us to another extended stay hotel across the street, but by then, the next day – so we were there a week.
But, by the next day, when the neighborhood opened and we knew about the press conference and as soon as that neighborhood opened, we went to go see the school and the house and we knew that people would be returning to the apartments that are actually inside Steiner Ranch. So, I went to the apartments, and we rented an apartment and we were lucky to get one of the, well if not the last apartment. It wasn’t readily available, but it was upcoming, so we knew we’d have some place to go and we’re very lucky that we had insurance.
KUT News: And that you were able to move back to your neighborhood. I think that made a big difference, didn’t it?
Bielinski: It made a huge difference because that was extremely important to us. In that time period, before – between the time period of the fourth and the end of the week, which was what, five or six days later that we were able to move in, we got such an outpouring of love from that neighborhood, from people we didn’t even know, people that knew of the school, people that had seen us on television because we got interviewed, people from River Place and Lake Travis and Lakeway, they were looking for us, they wanted to give us things, they wanted to make sure we had a place to live and my daughter’s school, she goes to the Austin International School, which is an elementary school here in Austin, it’s a tri-lingual school and people there come from all over the world, and so we were getting messages from their relatives in Germany. We were getting messages from – from there, people who had Facebooked us and we didn’t even know it. We must have gotten a hundred messages just on Facebook and then all, maybe 50 – 50 messages on the cell phone and it – when we were able to check the messages, it was incredible. So, that is one thing that was very important to us. We knew that we would have this incredible support base if we went back home and that’s what we did because Steiner Ranch is home.
KUT News: So, are you there still?
Bielinski: We are. We’re in the same apartment. We’re rebuilding on the same site. The music school is open and doing well and people are still checking up on us. We get cards and letters from around the country because my address was on television, the numbers to my street were on television, and we were interviewed by David Mandalay of CNN. He did one of those Sunday morning kind of exposes on us arriving at the home and walking through the home and talking about our community.
KUT News: So, he had a camera and you walked him through your…
Bielinski: Oh, yes, definitely and that was really interesting how that came about. When we were – when we went to St. Luke’s on the Lake for the press conference on the day it was going to open, the neighborhood was going to open, all of the media was there, the national media was there, USA Today, CNN, NBC, CBS, everybody was there because they came to interview Rick Perry and they were the only ones allowed into the neighborhood. The residents weren’t allowed into the neighborhood, the media and the Governor and his staff. So, they went, they did his interview, he left. They came to the fire marshal’s interview, which was at the – the St. Luke’s on the Lake. Then, when we were allowed to go back into the neighbor because I believe it opened at noon, we waited in line and the first thing I wanted to do was go to the music school because it was on the way and my husband wanted to go home first, but you know, we knew the house was already gone. So, I wanted to go to the school because the building, we could see, was standing, but people kept telling us that there was damage inside of the building. So, he let me off out of the car in the parking lot and I was literally running up the stairs because it’s on the second floor of the building and he drove around the corner, which is a mile away to the house, and I went up and I saw that it was just fine. I looked in the window and nothing was wrong with the school. So, I was coming down the stairs and I was speaking to him on the cell phone and they walked up to me. They were – all the media couldn’t get passed the barricades, so they were all in the parking lot and so…
KUT News: Did – okay, the parking lot where the press conference and the church…
Bielinski: Was on 620 and the media, when the residents were allowed to get into Steiner Ranch, also went into Steiner Ranch, but were blocked. They weren’t allowed to go further into the damaged area. So, they went back to the public area, which is the parking lot of my school. So, they saw me and obviously I was in distress and I was going, “Come back and pick me. Come back and pick me up,” and then David Mandalay offered to take us in and asked us if they could document as we go in. Of course, they could. Everybody needs to know what to do during this kind of situation. So, we – I got in the car with him and he interviewed us, well myself, to the house and then very graciously and respectfully stood back while my husband and I walked around the house and saw what was left and met up again with the neighbors.
KUT News: And the neighbors, how did they feel?
Bielinski: The neighbors lost their pets, they all – the immediate neighbors lost their homes. Of the 24 and of the four houses that I was able to call, all four houses were lost including – and then mine, the fifth one and a couple of the neighbors were all the way at the beach, so they were several hours away and had not returned. So, they went on vacation and they came home to no house and they weren’t – you know, they were just arriving home within the week. They weren’t – they weren’t back yet, so…
KUT News: Did they know?
Bielinski: I don’t think a couple of them knew because no one could get in touch with them until they got closer to home. I’m sure the dog sitter and called and, once they were able to contact the, they – you know, they didn’t probably know the extent of it, but once they – they did get home, they saw.
KUT News: Well, so you had people calling you to tell you, “We’re watching your school burn?”
Bielinski: Yes, there was smoke at the parking lot and the building where my school was. See, they could not get into the neighborhood to actually see the physical damage on the inside. So, because the smoke was there, they thought the building was on fire and the building wasn’t on fire. It was fine.
KUT News: So, what was on fire?
Bielinski: The brush next to the building and because the smoke had changed colors because at first it burns white or kind of a grayish-white and, you know, just like a campfire, normal smoke that you would see that you would set yourself in a campfire and then as it starts to hit building, it turns into this toxic kind of black, you know, just – just black – like the smoke that you would see in a movie. So, they saw that kind of smoke and they didn’t understand that it was the houses that were close to the school, not the school.
KUT News: So, you knew your house was gone…
KUT News: When you turned on the television the next day?
KUT News: You knew that probably your school was gone on Sunday, when people were telling you when you were standing in HEB parking lot.
KUT News: So, when you got back on Tuesday, it was a wonderful surprise, wasn’t it?
Bielinski: It was a complete relief that the school was there because if it had gone, first of all, I probably would have lost my mind, losing two things at once. That would have been too much for me personally.
KUT News: So you had no idea until you and your husband were in the car, you were coming to the press conference or the conference that they were going to have for the home…
KUT News: Owners, so did you have to turn a corner to see your – I mean, how did you first see that your – that your – that your building where your school is located was still standing? Kind of go back and…
Bielinski: You can see the school – the marquis for the school is on the tip of the building and you can see the building from 620 at a distance. So, I can still see the marquis. The marquis was there, so I knew the building didn’t burn because it’s glass and it would have – it would have, you know, cracked apart and fallen and as we drove closer, everything just looked normal. The documents for – for applications for lessons were still on the – in the document holders. There couldn’t have been a fire. The paper was still there and as you go down the street, as soon as you get to the welcome center, you can see the windows and it was fine, but when you get up, I figured well maybe the inside the building toward the back, but when I got to the school, you could look in the window and you could see nothing was disturbed. It was fine.
KUT News: So, even on the day after, on Monday, when you all went to Mansfield Dam…
KUT News: Were you able to see that your school was okay?
Bielinski: We were able to see that the building was fine.
KUT News: Well, the building was fine, yeah.
Bielinski: Right. Right. We didn’t know what inside. We didn’t know if they had used their hoses on the building. We didn’t know what the – what the facility, itself, was going to look like on the interior, but it was fine. So, we were blessed that we kept the school.
KUT News: Did the firefighters hose it down, do you know?
Bielinski: No. There was no visible signs that there had been a fire that had touched that building or any type of rescue attempt or anything on that building. So, it was – the reports were all false, but still greatly appreciated because, you know, you never know. So, that was fine and I – it’s such a – no one ever prepares you when you own a business, the great responsibility that you feel personally for the livelihoods of those that are your staff because they’re part of your family, they’re your team and all I could think about was, “Oh my god. All these people are going to be out of jobs. Where are we going to go? Where are all these, you know, 300 kids going to have their lessons? Maybe one of the other schools will let us come in.” You know, I kept thinking and one of the things that I have to remember is that in Steiner Ranch, everybody helps everybody else, so that it was going to be okay, but I didn’t know that because I was – I was just frightened.
KUT News: So, you’re rebuilding?
Bielinski: We are rebuilding.
KUT News: Where are you on that?
Bielinski: We are actually in the very beginning stages of it. We’ve done the conceptual drawings and the lay out of the home because the home was very old. It was about 17 years old that we – that we lost and the plans are gone. The builder is out of business, so we weren’t able to locate any plans, so we are rebuilding a home that we have to customize and we have actually given the – the plans to a builder and a designer and so that’s where we are. So, now the next stages within the next month will be breaking ground.
KUT News: Wonderful.
Bielinski: So, we’re pretty excited about that. It’s a whole new beginning.
KUT News: And you were able to start your school on time?
Bielinski: Yeah, we were down a couple days but, you know, because the neighborhood actually was closed and the entire neighborhood was evacuated, not just our street. So all 4,000 homes had to leave. So, when they all got back in, we were able to start within that week. We were able to get back to as much normalcy as we could possibly get and everybody came. So – and when I got back, I mean, people were dropping off clothes and toiletries and, you know, dinner and, you know, right at the school and then when they found out where we were actually moved into the apartments, we would open the door and there would be blankets and sleeping bags and pots and pans and one thing that was pretty incredible is that the generosity of everyone was – is just – you can’t even describe how it makes you feel.
You just know everything’s going to be okay, but personally, we had a serious issue to get over which we’ve never been taught to receive and that is one thing we had to learn. We’ve always been taught to give, so that is something we’re familiar with. We’re familiar with giving, but to be on the other end is an entirely different emotional spectrum. We kept saying no, so for the first week, you know, we were turning things away, we were, you know, taking it and putting it in the community bin that was going to Bastrop and then finally one of our friends said, “You need to make sure that your family understands that it is okay to receive and then what you don’t use or what you have excess of, you can pass on to the next person because your street, Medina River Way in Schleicher, Varner Court and Warner Court, you guys are in a unique position to know exactly what your neighbors need. So, if you get two of something or if you are in this Steiner” – I call it the Steiner News Network – “you’re in this network, you know your neighbor needs another sleeping bag. You know that your neighbor’s cousin in Bastrop needs a pan.”
You know, so it’s – you’re able to put it on the back of a truck and, you know, someone will take it out to where it needs to go because it got to the point where Steiner was giving so much, not only to us, you know, our neighbor, our street, our community, our portion of the community, they were giving so much to Bastrop that Bastrop started to turn it away because they didn’t have any place to sore it. So, then everybody had to change gears to see if they knew people or knew of people that needed it and so that’s one lesson I learned.
KUT News: Are all your neighbors rebuilding?
Bielinski: No, not all. Some of them have left already. It’s – it’s very painful. Some are in different positions and different stages in life. Empty nesters – we have a couple on our street that actually did purchase homes in Steiner Ranch or nearby. Some have moved away completely because they – they didn’t even come back to the street after they came and saw what happened. It’s – the emotional toll is so great that you can’t even understand, even if your house burned down, what your next door neighbor is feeling. You don’t know if they can look at the tree and think, “Well, that’s where my little girl had her swing that’s melted in a puddle right now,” and do they want to stay there or not.
So, you know, it’s very easy for people to think what they would do if they were in that situation, but until you’re in it, you know, you can’t judge, you can only support. So, we are very lucky that our – two of our immediate neighbors and they’re going to occupy the houses they are building and then directly next door is a developer that bought six houses or six lots and he’s a fantastic person. Ed and Denise Stephens, they bought a lot of the lots and they’re rebuilding homes that they are going to sell. So, we will be able to see, I’d say, only maybe three or four on our street and our near – next – next to us in the corner area that we live in, maybe about four of them have started to build and two of them are well under way.
KUT News: Now, it’s so wonderful that you’re so rooted in the community and that you didn’t, you know, you did lose so much, but it’s – it’s wonderful that you’re…
Bielinski: That we’re staying.
KUT News: That you’re staying, you have the support.
Bielinski: Yes, we did think about leaving. When something like that happens, you think maybe this is God’s way of saying, “Okay, here’s a fresh start. You need to do this. You need to move on.” Maybe your purpose in life is different, but after that outpouring of love and support and just community, there’s no way we’re leaving Steiner Ranch. It’s our home. They’re our family.
KUT News: So, how’s your family doing with all that has happened?
Bielinski: We were very, very, very cautious on how we approached the subject with our daughter. She just turned seven in December, but in September she was six and I do feel like that as a parent you should always be open and honest, although you try to shield your child from all of the bad things that are in this world, but when the fire did begin across 620 and we saw the smoke and she walked out to the greenbelt with us before it actually crossed 620, we told her directly, you know, “This may happen to us. This is what you need to do.” And she listened and that’s exactly what she did and then when we were in the hotel room and we realized, you know, the house was gone and they were – the news – every news media was repeating the story over and over again. We realized there was no way she was not going to see this eventually and because our home – if you – if you look at the Austin-American Statesman, they have Steiner Ranch Fire Interactive video. You can see before and after pictures of where the fire and it’s path that it took and it went straight through our house and went out like a triangle through our backyard and the news media were circling our home over and over again because you could see the pattern of the fire. So, it felt like it was really dead center, at least in our world, it was dead center. I’m sure everybody feels that way.
So, we showed her a video clip on television and she saw that our house was gone and then our neighbor had actually gone back into the neighborhood during the fires on the day that they were actually happening, while they were happening, and he videoed with his iPhone, he videoed our house burning as he walked down the street and it’s on YouTube. So you can see the actual physical house burning and we showed her that and she understood and then we waited until she actually asked to go see the house. So she didn’t see the house for a good three weeks – two, three weeks and then one day she said, “Mommy, can I go see the house now?” So, we took her and she stood in front of her and it was just rubble.
No one had cleaned up at that time and she saw the policeman, the fireman, the constables from Precinct 2 from Travis County, which gave us such huge support, and she’s standing right there with us, holding us, you know, and she walked through the house. She walked around the house and she went in the back and looked at the back greenbelt and then she looked at us and she said, “Well, Mommy, the cedar trees are gone. At least that will help my allergies.” And then she went back and got in the car and we all had a good laugh and we thought, “Well, children are remarkable. They can adapt. They process.” As long you don’t lie to them, as you keep them abreast of what’s happening and they feel like they’re included, they can process it. So, that’s the humor of the situation.
The seriousness of the situation is that, you know, we do talk to her and we have counseling available through my husband’s work. He works at Petroleum Geo Services and they – they came up from Houston, the human resources director from the Americas came to make sure we were okay and they actually have offered us counseling. They offered to help to see – to make sure everyone was okay, to make sure we had a roof over our head and she got to see that they care and then her school, I told you about AIS, Austin International School, the people that she’s directly involved with, were right there. My good friends Tracy and Danielle, they picked her up and Kirstin, they picked her up, the took her to her homes, they made sure that she actually had – she was at school, they bought her clothes, they got her food, they got her uniforms, they got her lunch ready, they took her to school, they let her stay at their house, so for the first week, she went from friend’s house to friend’s house so they kept everything as normal as possible for her, which was a tremendous support for us because we were able to deal with the insurance company, FEMA, we were able to deal with the fire marshal, you know, the thousands of news media that descended upon the neighborhood and were everywhere you looked.
So, that helped tremendously the keeping – keeping her life as normal as possible and – and then when she also saw how people of the surrounding communities, as well, you know, came to the door and they took us to their homes and they gave us food and dinner and clothes and – like our friends Cynthia and Christie and, I mean, there’s so many people that honestly I need to thank and – and you know, I say I need to thank, but honestly, they know how much we love them. So, without all those people to help us and people from the music school, we wouldn’t have gotten through this. So, we were able to process it all because of their support.
KUT News: And your husband’s okay and your mom. How’s your mom?
Bielinski: Oh, she’s – they’re doing very well. My husband’s a rock and the way he handled the situation – you know, husband and wives that have been married for 21 years, everybody has a different take on the situation, has a different direction they want to go, but from the moment that fire jumped 620 and went into the Greenbelt and started to approach, he took charge, there was no discussion. He said to our neighbors, you know, we have 30 minutes to get out of here and to our family, “This is what you need to do, this, that,” and that’s what we did and the one thing that people are always asking is, “You didn’t leave with anything,” and I said, “That is what I regret,” and it’s not the things that we lost in the home it’s that when we did live in California, we had a bag for each member of our family and even our pet and I called it a go-bag. We had water, we had food, dried food, we had clothes, we had medicine. We even had an extra pair of glasses.
We had anything we might need in order to survive an earthquake or a fire or the floods that you get in California. So, we had a go-bag and we had that for the entire decade that we lived there and would replenish it. We even had extra money and a credit card in that bag. Here, in Texas, we got very, very comfortable and complacent and we had nothing. So, if there’s one bit of advice that I hope we’ve learned and that I hope I can tell anyone that’s listening, please pack a go-bag and keep it in the car because you will not be able to go back and access it.
KUT News: Is there anything else you’d like to add, Nichelle?
Bielinski: Don’t underestimate the power of friendship and the love of a perfect stranger. This, I mean, not just the community of Steiner Ranch, but the City of Austin, they will surround you with comfort. They will help you. They will guide you. People you don’t know, people you do know, it’s incredible. It’s a wonderful place to live and we’ll never leave.