The 2011 wildfires that burned down the Central Texas town and surrounding forests of Bastrop, we destructive and all-encompassing. Texas author Randy Fritz lived through those fires, which were reportedly the most destructive in our state’s history. The fire burned through more than 30,000 acres, destroyed 1,700 buildings and homes and left many without shelter and without family mementos.
Fritz is a former COO of the Texas Department of State Health Services, and was responsible for coordinating state responses to cataclysmic events like the fires or Hurricane Katrina. In his new book, “Hail of Fire,” Fritz chronicles how the Bastrop fires changed his perspective on life and disaster.
In the book, there’s a moment where Fritz and a group of people have gathered on an overlook watching a yellow line of fire, bursting with light, as it engulfed yet another house. Before this moment, Fritz says that he and his daughter did not think they were at risk, but “there was that little bit of voice in the back of their [our] minds that said maybe we were.”
As Fritz and his daughter watched the smoke billow into the sky and looked down onto the fires ripping through these homes, he says two things occurred to him: “One is that we could be in for something like that ourselves. But – more to the point – was all those poor people whose lives are being… tremendously upended, and who’d be going through a huge upheaval.”
Though the tragedy struck so close to home, Fritz also saw the disaster as raw, natural and beautiful.
“There were many aspects of the fire, that from a nature standpoint or a natural phenomenon standpoint were breathtaking. Absolutely beautiful. But, also horrifying,” he says.
Though the fires were raging, at some point Fritz made the decision to go back and get things from his home. In hindsight, he says he sees this decision as stupid. “It could’ve easily cost my life.”
But he went back. Fritz saved things that were likely replaceable and left things that were irreplaceable. In a tragedy, it’s not always easy to make the right decision. Fritz says his decisions were riddled with memories of all of the pieces of his life he left behind. His advice for anyone in a similar situation?
“If anybody is in a position where their life is at risk and where their property is at risk, save yourself.”
In the aftermath of the fire, Fritz also realized how important services like mental health are during times of tragedy.
“You can have a place to stay that’s sub-optimal, you can even stay in your car and maybe eat junk food right off the bat, but if your mind is leaving you in a way that you recognize, that can lead to terrible things,” Fritz says. “If you have an experience and you feel like your life has been upended and you don’t know what’s happening to you – get help.”