Some stories are best told through images. I’ve shown the progression of our favorite oak tree before but here it is updated with our latest image…as the last remaining tree on our lot.
While I was away working at the Lutheran Church Texas District Convention on a video project, Aspen Tree Service was working on clearing our lot of all remaining trees, save for one. Working steadily both Saturday and Sunday, Aspen knocked over the approximately 70+ pines that still stood along with random cedars and yaupons bringing a close to nearly 9 months of clean-up on our property since the September 4 wildfires ravaged our area.
As I drove up this morning to see the result I was both humbled and encouraged. It certainly looked very different having the trees cleared.
“It looks good!” a voice called out to me. I looked over toward Daniel’s property and there was his wife, Maria, smiling. She had been working in their gardens.
“It really does!” I said to her. “I’m surprised. It takes some adjusting to but its nice to see it cleared.”
We chatted for a bit until my appointment arrived and I waved goodbye to Maria. My meeting today was with Tommy, a fire investigator with Quest Fire Analysis, whom I had met along with a private investigator at a prior coffee shop meeting in Austin. Working for insurance companies they were working to discover more about the causes of the fires and were most focused on and interested in the easement area. Tommy and I were meeting so that I could share my story about the events on the day of the fire and pinpoint what I saw and exactly where. I recounted the events of that windy September 4 afternoon, now seeming so long ago, as we walked the property.
While we talked, Ben, who had tagged along with me, was running around the acreage playing in the sand and dirt, discovering new adventures on our now tree-less property. Well…tree-less except for one. Tracy and I had both agreed we wanted to leave that lone oak tree up, even though it was clearly dead. It had been such a unique tree in our yard that we wanted some familiar element to remain on the now very unfamiliar property.
And so it now stands, a lone sentry on an otherwise empty lot, holding quiet vigil over our now barren acre.
As Tommy and I finished up our chat, Daniel came over and we talked for a bit too. He marveled at how quickly the Aspen crew tore up all of our trees and made quick work of bulldozing them down and piling them up for hauling away. Tommy and I wrapped up our business, Daniel and I said goodbye for now, and Ben and lagged behind at the property long enough to snap a few photos before heading out back home to Austin. It was only about 10 am and it was already getting incredibly hot! Besides, new developments were underway regarding a possible future home for our family and I needed to get back to attend to those plans.
So, yet another stage of this long process comes to a close. Once the pile of trees stacked at both the front and back right-of-way on our property, and the remaining concrete foundation pieces piled at the front, are hauled off then we will be completely wrapped up with the post-fire clean-up and debris removal. Its been a length, tiring process. Part of me is sad to see such an empty lot. But part of me is also glad to be done with this part of our journey.
I’d have to agree with Daniel’s wife, Maria: It does look good. At the very least it does look better cleaned up as opposed to the sticks of dead trees that covered the acre only a few short days ago.
Now we can move forward, focused on revitalizing the landscape for the future. And that’s something I’m actually looking forward to.
One quick before and after photo for today. Actually, even this “after” photo isn’t current anymore. A lot has changed since this past Saturday’s work day. I’m working on an update on that with photos and hope to have that posted here before the weekend.
Here is another selection of photos of items that we lost in the fire but found semi-intact afterward. Rather than these being a study in futility, I find them kind of interesting views into how the fire re-shaped these items into their own unique form of art. They are no longer functional tools but have become their own storied objects frozen in time, reminding me of some of the things that were transformed beneath the sea long after the Titanic went down. I’m planning on taking more “artsy” photos of these objects later for a book I’m working on about our fire story. But, for now, these will have to suffice.
It was a humid Saturday morning as my two boys and I headed out to our property in Bastrop to meet with Curtis from Samaritan’s Purse. Curtis was a kindly older man, very soft-spoken, who clearly has a heart for helping others. Curtis has worked with Samaritan’s Purse for many years and has served across the country and across the world.
Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian aid organization focused on helping people physically and spiritually. It was founded by Billy Graham’s eldest son, Franklin, who serves as President of the organization. They often provide help after storm disasters. They usually don’t assist after fires but considering the need in our area they came in to help. I found out about them through my wife Tracy and her friends via Facebook.
Curtis and I were meeting so that I could get signed up with them to have the concrete slab, or foundation, from my former home in Bastrop broken up and moved to the right-of-way for Bastrop county to haul off. The latest word is that Bastrop will cease hauling away debris for free on May 21. After that residents will be responsible (financially and otherwise) for having all of their debris removed from their property. My discovery of Samaritan’s Purse couldn’t have occurred at a more convenient time and this was clearly another blessing in our ever-growing list of blessings. I had just finished moving the last of the brick debris from the perimeter of my foundation to the right-of-way beside the road. All that is left of house debris now is the foundation.
After filling out a very brief form with Curtis, I’m told its quite possible we could have them hard at work on our foundation as early as Monday.
Samaritan’s Purse will be in Bastrop for the next three weeks helping out fire victims with debris removal. There is no charge for their services. They are all volunteers, many of them having served all over the world. They are looking for people to help in Bastrop. If you or others you know affected by the Bastrop wildfires could benefit from their assistance please contact them. For more information on this wonderful ministry visit their website below.
I’ve been meaning to start a semi-regular feature sharing about some of the items that we lost in the fire and then found having survived afterward. Obviously “survived” is a relative term here. Nothing really survived intact or undamaged. The only exception is the blue ceramic cross. Otherwise everything else we found was either singed, burned, charred, melted or corroded by the fire in some way, shape or form. Still, its interesting to see what we did find and how they ended up looking after the fire.
I decided to start out with the very last items I found this past week while finishing up the brick clearing. In all likelihood, now that the primary house debris cleanup is wrapped (that is the metal, ash and brick debris), these were the last significant items that will be found.
The first was a light bulb, melted and twisted a bit but still relatively intact. Its interesting just to see how heat shaped the glass but yet it never broke, unlike nearly every other piece of glass in the house. I’m not sure why as I’m not even sure what this bulb was from anymore.
Not far away from the bulb was a portion of a Christmas card that had once been stored in a box in our garage. The only surviving part of it was the inside of the card with the words, “experience anew the gift of Hope sent that silent night so long ago”.
It seems fitting that the very first thing we found when we returned to the property was the blue “Blessed” cross, and the very last thing I found this week, seven months later, was this scrap of a card proclaiming that same message of Christ. I continue to be humbled by His presence each and every day and these “lost and found” items are gentle reminders of that.
On Thursday, April 19, 2012 the last of the bricks from what was once our home in Bastrop were cleared away from the foundation for hauling off. I worked from 10:30 am until about 1:30 pm to finish shoveling up the bricks and hauling them by wheelbarrow to the front of my property where the county will eventually haul them away.
The boys finished their homeschooling early and tagged along with me to the property, playing on a very different acre than it once was, and also helping me with shoveling the last wheelbarrow load full. They were equally a big help by making sure Daddy took plenty of breaks during our 3 hours at the property and that we all drank lots of water.
Ben and Matthew had the distinction of picking up the last two bricks off the ground and putting them in the last wheelbarrow load of brick debris. Kind of a poignant moment. Aftwards the boys asked if they could each take a brick of their own home. I let them each take two.
I hauled the last wheelbarrow load to the right-of-way, dumped it on the pile, and went back to look over the foundation, free of all bricks, after 7 months of (intermittent) clean-up work.
Ben was walking across the concrete slab near where the garage once stood. He said, “Its hard to believe that we once fit a car and, like, a hundred boxes and all sorts of other stuff in this garage.” We walked over to where the A/C unit closet once was, then my office, then the boy’s room. The outlines of where walls once stood, still visible on the slab. Ben made the same type of comment at each place. “Everything looks so small now.”
I smiled. Ben was growing up. Matthew too. Throughout the aftermath of the fire we were all learning new things, even now, about our perspectives on what had been, what is and even what will be in the future. When the walls came down they truly changed a great many things: Bastrop, the community, our neighborhood and our relationships as neighbors, the landscape and much more. But perhaps nothing was as dramatic a change as the change taking place within each of us.
As I loaded up the boys and prepared to head back to our house in Austin I texted Tracy about the completed job. She texted back right away. “Wow!!! That’s quite an accomplishment. You touched nearly every brick that was our house!” I hadn’t thought of it that way before. It was a lot of bricks. Now, I could have had a tractor come in and make quick work of those bricks in an hour or so. But, as I told my neighbor Daniel, it was just something I had to do. I couldn’t really explain it. I just had to clear those bricks away myself, even though I knew it would take awhile to complete. Of course I’d had help from others early on, including the hard work of many from the Matthijetz family, the Hard family, and Gary Rash and Jordan Boesseling from our church. They had truly been a part of starting the brick clearing process, helping to clear off the bricks from the front sidewalk late last year. From then until now had been a lot of hard work.
But now as I drove away from the property, staring at all the bricks piled out front, I felt a feeling of accomplishment and relief…and also a little pride – pride in two young boys who were growing up before my eyes and learning to live with change in ways I never would have imagined for them. And only by the grace of God.
One thing I failed to mention in Monday’s update was that there are several homes on our street that are either being framed up or have their exterior shell completed. Most of them I’ve watched going up over previous weeks. Monday, however, was the first time I noticed activity behind us. The above photo is a view toward the easement from the back of our property. Its very close to the perspective I had the day of the fire. If you look closely at the center of the picture you can see the wood frame of a new house going up. They are clearly rebuilding. Its kind of interesting to compare the view I had seven months ago with the view of today, and to see people slowly rebuilding, slowly working their way back. As time marches on and more and more trees are brought down (or simply fall down) and houses go up, the visibility of seeing each of the homes in the neighborhood will increase. Its a dramatic change that will have a big impact on the neighborhood as it grows away from what it was and into what it will be. Theres something kind of beautiful about that, even though its hard to put into words right now.
Perhaps the last photo for today says it best: butterflies on a purple flower. There are signs of new life everywhere; from the green weeds and grass, to the footprints of deer in the mud; from the birds flitting through the remains of the trees, to the sounds of the toads croaking at night (Daniel, my neighbor, has heard them on damp nights); from the earthworms in the mud underneath the bricks as I clear them away, to the sight of a squirrel searching through the new undergrowth for any signs of food. Daniel also told me about a wolf or coyote that has come up to our road one evening, probably in search of water or food. The sights and sounds of nature are coming back, slowly and surely. All in concert with God’s marvelous design. From out of a disaster continues to grow new life.
As I drove up to our property today I was greeted by a brightly painted wood star, sticking out of the ground on a green painted stick. It warmed my heart to see these in front of every property as I drove through the neighborhood. On the back of each star is the first name and initial to the last name of the student who painted the star. Apparently this was part of some school effort to reach out to fire victims in Bastrop. I’ll have to get the full story and update later but its very cool. Ours was made by “John W.” Whoever you are you made me smile today when I saw your precious creation. As the rest of the Ristow family comes out to see it, I know they will too.
God Bless you, John W!
Today was another day of clearing bricks from around the perimeter of the foundation. But the end is quickly drawing near. I was able to clear nearly half of the south side of the foundation, the last of the sides to be clear end, in about an hour today. I was grateful for the cloud cover hanging with me all afternoon. It sure beats a blazing sun overhead while hauling brick. The remaining bricks will probably take another 1.5 to 2 hours to clear, which I plan to finish up later this week. It feels good to be reaching the end of this part of the clean-up. After I’ve finished with the last of the bricks I’ll call the county again to pick up this last pile. In a way it is a bit sad to reach this point, too. The last of the brick means the last of the debris that was our home will be gone.
Of course there’s still the foundation. Recently there’s been some exciting news involving movement toward a cleanup effort for that concrete slab that I hope to share here within the next week or so. More on that soon.
Before leaving for the day I snapped a few more stills around the property for my weekly update. I’ve posted several of them here. Some of these are a study in contrasts, such as a really bright sunflower, and some really dark trees stubs. Although you may not be able to see it real well from the picture, some of the tree stubs are shedding their burned bark. Thats not because they’re dead. Its because the Pine Beetles are back and they’re busy boring away at the interior pine tree wood. Even a fire couldn’t stop the Pine Beetles for long.
After a busy slate of recent work projects and all the activities of Easter, I was finally able to make it back out to the property today to clear a bit more brick. After a few hours of work, the foundation is clear on three sides. Now only the south side remains to be cleared. Its been strangely comforting to carve out these small niches of time here and there to slowly clear away the bulk of the brick of what was once our home.
Weeds are overtaking much of the lot and while it does look rather ragged at the moment, I’m glad to see the vegetation still taking hold in the soil. Its also a welcome sight to see some substantial color across the property, besides the black and grey that has dominated for so long. Virtually all the trees on our street remain black sticks, with very few exceptions. Many, many trees will be coming down in the months (and years) ahead.
It almost seemed odd to hear the sound of weed-eaters filling the air as neighbors worked to trim back the tide of weeds that have been fostered by the very welcome rains of late. Odd in that I felt a momentary twinge of regret at the thought of everyone carving away greenery we had waited for so long to return.
The sounds of chainsaws still fill the air as well. Another neighbor, two doors down, was cutting down a huge pine tree today. I was there as the chainsaw finished its cut and the tree cracked, then crashed to the earth, the ground trembling as the hefty pine trunk landed.
Its six months since the fire and many people have barely made a dent in felling their trees. I still have over 3/4 of my trees to knock down. Most of us have waited for spring to see what may or may not come back. In our neighborhood the reality is starkly clear that these trees are dead. The fire simply burned too long and too hot out here. The trees were literally cooked.
My good neighbor Daniel was home while I was working and once again came out and offered me a cool drink and a break to chat. His conversation is always soothing to me. He and his wife are rebuilding and are getting bids on plans for a slightly larger home with lots of windows and a wraparound porch. He’s hoping they’ll be able to move in well before Christmas. Right now they’re living in a small camper trailer on their property. I’m glad they’re there. Their presence gives some life to the neighborhood, some consistency and a couple of smiles.
After Daniel headed off, I finished up my brick hauling for the day. I estimate another 2-3 trips out to the property to finish clearing the remaining brick. My $60 wheelbarrow might just make it through the job. Then it will be time to handle the breaking up and removal of the foundation, and then, finally, the rest of the trees.
Day by day, step by step…
Something about this old oak just keeps providing me with inspiration for more photo ops. While working out there on Saturday the eerie look of the sun lined up behind it gave me goosebumps and I had to snap this rather spooky image. Not long after this the sun came out and a blue sky appeared.
Our friends, Jason Hard and his son, Luke, came out to help Tim with shoveling more bricks on Saturday, too. A few hours later and the perimeter of the slab got a whole lot clearer. Now, the front of the slab and the rear of the slab, along with about a 1/3 of one side are cleared of brick. More clearing to take place this week. Hopefully by the end of this next week, the majority of the bricks will be piled up for pick-up, leaving only the slab and trees left.
Today I cleared more bricks from around the slab. Now the patio and former garden can see the light of day again.
Finally, let’s end this weeks update on a beautiful note. This was actually from last week but I caught this eerily beautiful radiance of sun streaming through the clouds over Bastrop. There’s something kind of angelic about the image.
Yesterday’s Weekly Update got me to thinking about how our old oak tree used to look before the fire. I thought it might be interesting to start a semi regular before and after post that would help give you all a perspective on how things used to look.
The oak tree used to be such a central point of activity in our backyard, especially once the tire swing went up. The boys could never get enough of playing on that swing.