On April 16, 2012, Sam Robertson shared his story about the wildfires with KUT News.
Sam Robertson: Alright my wife and I had gone to Houston for a wedding and we left- I don’t exactly know which day it was but we left Houston coming back on 290 and just about oh 20 miles outside of Elgin the highway patrol was set up to have people get off the road and we saw that there was this orange or reddish glow in the sky off the left which would have been south of Bastrop and we knew that all summer- it was a very hot summer and everything was dry and we knew the possibilities of fire and the highway patrol- we started smelling the smoke seeing the red glow in the sky and the highway patrol had set up a roadblock on 290 I mean 290 is a, a major thoroughfare going, east and west and what happened when we got to the point where 290 was being diverted there were bunches of cars and people sitting at a service station and they were just watching to see what was coming -see the red glow and so forth and we got detoured off onto a small country road-
I mean really small it was-two cars couldn’t pass side by side and everything that was usually on 290 was on that road and we went- I mean it was like it was probably 25 miles to go five miles because we were I mean there had never been that much traffic on that road people were sitting in their yard watching the traffic go by, there were you know very few houses but people were sitting in their yard watching the traffic go by and then we started seeing- the closer we got to where the fire was on the other side we started smelling a lot more smoke and it was, it was dark but we knew it was smoke it wasn’t just dust on the road that we were kicking up it was just a lot of smoke and as we got into some places we could see the red glow and we could see a few flames but not a lot of flames they had diverted us far enough away from the fire so that there was probably no way for it to get to where that-where they were detouring us but I mean it was, it was, that back road was filled with traffic but we were like- I don’t know of you’ve ever heard the story about Paul Bunyan where the blue ox had the straighten out this road but I mean it curled back on itself and it went through places and across small creek bridges and I mean just everything.
We finally go t probably to the end of it and then it was a very hard time just getting back to 290 because you know you had to- everybody was- everybody on 290 was turning to the left and we were trying to get back on 290 turning right but, there was no highway patrol at that point so we were just, everybody had to stop and then had to get back on and then we could still see you know the red glow in the sky from that point behind us. And we came on back to Austin from that point but what I most remember is my thinking… that this… could happen again and we were actually south of Bastrop I think when the normal- not normal, I won’t say normal- but when the major Bastrop fires occurred they actually started from a storm or lightening or something north or northwest of Bastrop and then went toward Bastrop well it could have easily started south of Bastrop and done the same thing and gone north because I mean it was wild… it was wild.
KUT News: This was Sunday?
Sam Robertson: This was probably a Sunday night I don’t remember exactly when it was but it wasn’t the same day as the fires that caught all the news.
KUT News: This was what?
Sam Robertson: This was probably two weeks before the major fires. This wasn’t “the” fires this was- that’s why I say in my writing it was a precursor to the fires you know if you had thought about it, I don’t know you could have prevented anything but it was a major fire south of Bastrop that had already occurred maybe three weeks before the major fires occurred north of Bastrop.
KUT News: And you were on 290 and this old road this back road.
Sam Robertson: (laughs) This very back road.
KUT News: Was north or south of 290.
Sam Robertson: It was south of 290. They shuttled us off because the fire would have been coming on the- that would have been on the left hand side coming from Houston that would have been on the north side of 290 and toward Bastrop so easily that fire could have been the major fire if it had gone south but I assume that at that point it was coming south but they shuttled us off south of 290 and we backed up and went through the woods an coma back on 290 but it just says that fires- the major fire- which happened tow or three weeks later could have been any potion of anywhere in that area because you know the thing about that area is you’ve got cedar trees, you’ve got a few oak trees and you’ve got some pine trees and you know the beautiful pines that you’ve got in- I grew up in Arkansas so I know what pines look like an when it came to Texas that was the only place I had ever seen pine trees in Texas, in the Lost Pines of Texas so you know I knew the potential of what your going to lose.
KUT News: Well they had their experience didn’t they, evacuating…
Sam Robertson: They had the experience and they- you know to their credit there probably weren’t any outbreaks south of Bastrop but then there was the one north and west of Bastrop that was the major fire.
KUT News: How big was this ball, this orange ball you saw?
Sam Robertson: Oh it was probably uh- they took us off of 290 and probably 10 miles of 290 but we probably took 25 miles to bypass it so I think it was a very large fire that they were trying to contain. It didn’t hit the newspaper or anything but it was very large uh I’d say oh 75 acres or so- it wasn’t a small fire.
KUT News: It didn’t hit the papers?
Sam Robertson: I don’t- I never saw it in the papers.
KUT News: I wonder why.
Sam Robertson: I don’t know I think it’s because it was contained, eventually contained or put out.
KUT News: Must have not been loss of property.
Sam Robertson: Must not have been loss –it was- you know it was country, they night have lost some cattle or something in there but, I never saw it in the papers.
KUT News: And all these people who were congregating watching, did they all seem pretty…
Sam Robertson: Oh they weren’t ready to run but I mean they had a command post sized to them and they had the volunteer fire departments that were from that- it was a service station where they were turning us off of 290 and there were people, you know, parked and sitting on top of their pickup trucks and watching the sky and waiting on the –waiting on it to actually break through and actually see some flames that- well they turned us off the road well before we saw any flames so we were going through the back roads and only at one point did we see flames but they were pretty far away but they were flames that were going in the air probably 150, 200 feet o you know.
KUT News: In the air?
Sam Robertson: In the air, I mean so it was- it wasn’t a small fire it was a large fire.
KUT News: Unbelievable well and so how was the caravan of cars? Was everybody…
Sam Robertson: Oh If you can think of all the traffic that was on 290 both ways on a one way road.
KUT News: On a weekend.
Sam Robertson: On a weekend, first Sunday night, we were driving back cause you know we were just coming back to being town for the next day but everything, everything just detoured and my daughter had gone and she was driving behind us and we telephoned her to say hey slow down because you’re going to have to hit the same thing that we did and, she did, so…
KUT News: And did they tell you where that fire was exactly or where you…
Sam Robertson: No.
KUT News: Just kind of guessing where you know, you knew what direction.
Sam Robertson: I knew what direction Bastrop-wise I knew, where you get in to Bastrop just when you come into the I guess it… when you get into- I’m sorry Elgin when you come into Elgin there is a turn off to go to Bastrop just before you get into Elgin.
KUT News: 95 is it?
Sam Robertson: I think it’s 95, yeah and you can head up going I guess that would be going north to get to Bastrop but everything I mean within four miles I mean after we got on, back on 290, there was only about three or four miles before we got to that turn so you knew what direction Bastrop was in.
KUT News: So it was before- it was on the, eastern side of Elgin there you took your evacuation route.
Sam Robertson: Right, right.
KUT News: Did-where you- it was very slow?
Sam Robertson: We were, we were- unless there were cars, there were cars coming in both directions so it took us probably an hour to go this 20 miles I mean it wasn’t…
KUT News: So you were going 30 miles an hour, 20?
Sam Robertson: 30 miles… sometimes you could get up to… 25 miles or 30 miles an hour but even on the backhoed which wasn’t a paved road, it was dusty, you know everybody was kicking up dust.
KUT News: It wasn’t paved?!
Sam Robertson: No! it wasn’t a paved road, and, we were just you know just detouring and all the traffic that had been going in both direction so when you met somebody you either had to pull to one side so they could pass, or they would pull to the side so you could pass or if there was a one lane bridge or a culvert bridge then hey you all you did was wait on the traffic to come one way an you take your caravan and go the other way but it was bumper to bumper so you know it was quite a thing.
KUT News: You would think there world have lots of coverage from all the inconvenience…
Sam Robertson: I never saw a thing in the paper
KUT News: Radio?
Sam Robertson: No.
KUT News: Television?
Sam Robertson: No, never saw a thing about it. You know it was just really, a focus or a premonition on things to come I mean as dry as it was last summer as dry as the hill country was as dry as anyplace was it was no question that any spark or anything and- would start a fire and it’s no question to me that we had multiple fires around the city of Austin because anywhere you got enough people to start something then all it takes is one spark as dry and terrible from the standpoint of trees I mean , a lot of trees died last year just because of the, just the dryness and any spark would start…. But I never saw anything about it in the paper.
KUT News: If there had been a wind it would have just.
Sam Robertson: Oh absolutely.
KUT News: If you were seeing the fire so high in the sky…
Sam Robertson: The difference between that and the and the day that the we had you know the major fires was the wind because it was a dry wind the day that the major fires stared but if there had been a wind there I mean it would have easily outdistanced any containment, jumped, 290 and continued on, wherever it wanted to go.
KUT News: Did you get back to Austin in daylight?
Sam Robertson: No, no it was- when we stared getting to the fire sit was already probably oh, 8, 8:30 when we got detoured it was late in the evening that’s why we always saw the red glow as we got closer to it.
KUT News: So it was dusk or already dark?
Sam Robertson: It was already dark.
KUT News: When you took your detour.
Sam Robertson: When we started our detour.
KUT News: That’s how you could see it so well…
Sam Robertson: Yeah.
KUT News: And you could smell the smoke.
Sam Robertson: Absolutely…
KUT News: You couldn’t see it necessarily.
Sam Robertson: Couldn’t see it.
KUT News: Was it really close to the windshield or anything or?
Sam Robertson: No it was- I mean a combination, if you can consider it a combination, on that back road of dust and smoke if you saw headlight s coming in front you then you knew-
KUT News: Then you saw it.
Sam Robertson: Then you saw it, it was like driving in a fog so you saw smoke and you saw dust and that was just it.
KUT News: What a story well thank you so much is there anything else you would like to add.
Sam Robertson: No, I appreciate the opportunity to give you the story but to me it was an true precursor to the Bastrop fires it was a… if I don’t, don’t know if there was anything you could have gathered from that to say where going to do anything about it or how to prevent it was- it was just so dry that any spark anywhere would- with any kind of wind would just explode.
KUT News: I wonder how it stared.
Sam Robertson: I don’t know, I have no idea.
KUT News: Well thank you, Sam.
Sam Robertson: You’re welcome.