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As Recovery Continues, Bastrop Remembers Five Years of Perseverance

Mose Buchele
A moment of silence at the "Bastrop County Remembers" event.

After the Bastrop Complex Fires burned his property and destroyed his home five years ago, artist and furniture maker Walter Winslett took a tour of the damage. That’s when he came across two trees, charred and dead, but still standing.

An ashen forest after the Bastrop Complex fire.
Credit Mose Buchele / KUT

“When I saw them together they were just a pair of sentinels standing alone in this burned ashen forest,” he remembers, “the ground was all grey, and I pulled a wagon out across the landscape and took my chainsaw and cut them down.”

Those two sentinels stood at an entrance to the Bastrop Convention Center on Sunday, as the County hosted “Bastrop County Remembers,” an event to mark the five year anniversary of what is still the most destructive wildfire in Texas History.

Like Winslett’s trees, the afternoon allowed people to recall and possibly find some meaning in a disaster that still feels fresh.

“I think it aged all of us a whole lot,” says Jeri Winslett, an artist, store operator, and Walter’s wife. “I feel vulnerable now instead of safe. Even though where we are is pretty safe.”

Credit Mose Buchele
Jeri and Walter Winslett.

That sense of vulnerability is exacerbated by other natural disasters that have struck the town since the 2011 fires.

“We had the fires, and in 2015 we were getting ready to close down shop because all of our rebuilds from those fires were completed,” says Sheila Lowe, Executive Director of the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team, “then we had the memorial day floods of 2015.”

“We were going to phase out again once we had given assistance for those floods,” Lowe continues, “and then we were hit with the Hidden Pines Fire.”

That fire burned nearly 5,000 acres and destroyed more than 60 homes.

Soon after that fire broke out, Bastrop was struck with another flood on Halloween 2015.

Credit Mose Buchele
Sheila Lowe, Executive Director of the Bastop County Long Term Recovery Team.

Then another on Memorial Day 2016.

“Everybody here is still gun shy,” says Lieutenant Darrell Byrer with the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department. Byrer also lost his home in 2011.

“When they see smoke they’re calling in now,” he says. “They’re afraid it’s going to be another wildfire. So we do a lot of smoke chase.”

Byrer says the calls usually lead firefighters to controlled burns on private property.

Beyond a heightened sense of caution, he says, the County’s recent troubles have created a strong sense of community.

Credit Mose Buchele
Bill Owens Directs the Bastrop Honor Choir.

That was highlighted in speeches and in a song called “Everything I Need,” sung by a children’s choir at the event. The lyrics were written by Bastrop school children after the fire, says Bill Owens, Director of the Bastrop Honor Choir.

“The kids realized that 'everything I need I already have in my own heart,'” he says. “'I have it in my own heart to recover.'”

As far as the Winslett's recovery is concerned, Jeri and Walter Winslett say they are grateful for where they have ended up.

“Everybody goes through hard experiences,” says Walter Winslett, “and when you have, you develop a sort of kinship in that area of your life.”

“I think we have a new respect for each other and new commitment from the fire,” adds Jeri,“we realize what we’ve both been through and it’s been so tough.”

Credit Mose Buchele / KUT
Bastrop County residents await a briefing from fire officials on the morning of September 6, 2011.
Credit Mose Buchele / KUT
A view from the staging area in Bastrop on September 5, 2011.

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