‘It was raining fire’: Recovery continues 10 years after Bastrop wildfires

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BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — This weekend marks 10 years since the Bastrop Complex Fire, one of the largest wildfires in Texas history. Two people died and 32,000 acres were destroyed in the blaze that lasted 55 days.

For many Bastrop residents, the scars from those weeks have been slow to fade.

“This fire made its own lightning. It made its own wind. It made its own rain. It was a storm inside of a storm,” said Michelle Byrd. She was one of the many volunteer firefighters on the front lines as the fire tore through her community.

“I told a friend, as long as I’m a firetruck, fighting fires, I felt like I was in control. Turns out, not so much.”

Michelle and her husband lived in the Tahitian Village neighborhood.

“When I pulled up in my driveway, it was raining fire,” Michelle recounts with tears in her eyes. “I’m a firefighter. I had a metal roof. I had my trees cut back. I had my yard mowed, but none of that matters when the fire is coming from above and sideways and under.”

Despite her best efforts to fight the fire, the blaze consumed her home.

“It was too late,” she said.

Michelle and her husband lost everything except for a change of clothes they had at the firehouse.

Recovering from the Bastrop Complex Fire

Recovery efforts began immediately. The Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team held their first meeting just days after the fire started. They were able to rebuild 135 homes in the weeks that followed the fire and help those who lost everything, including Michelle.

The Lost Pines Woods area that burned down was a major focus of the recovery efforts. “For the next 20, 30 years, I would say we’re in the restoration phase,” says Jamie Creacy, superintendent with Bastrop State Park.

Creacy says that 96% of the park was damaged by the fire. Some parts still look much like they did before, despite being caught in the flames. Prescribed burns cleared much of the underbrush in those areas, saving the pine trees there.

“We had a mosaic of a landscape, from a low-intensity burn to a high-intensity burn where it had that moonscape atmosphere and there was no organic matter left in the park.”

Restoration efforts have occurred inside and outside the park. Today, pine trees and grasses have been replanted on more than 4,000 acres.

Wildlife is slowly returning. The Houston Toad, one of the first species ever listed as endangered, once called the Lost Pines its home. The fire wiped out its habitat, but it has since moved to different areas in Bastrop County. The toad is still on the endangered list.

Erosion has remained a major problem. The fire destroyed much of the underbrush that prevented erosion. Several trails are still in need of repairs and remained closed. One trail, which was once a dirt path, will now require the construction of bridges because erosion has wiped out large swaths of the trail.

“We would work on the trail, have a big rainfall event and then everything would wash away again,” Creacy says.

Creacy says that fully restoring the park, and Lost Pines Woods to the forest it once was, will take around 70 years.

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