The Human Stories Behind the Labor Day Wildfires

“It looked like all of Texas was burning.”

By The KUT News staffSeptember 7, 2015 8:17 am,

This story originally appeared on KUT News.

By Monday, September 5, 2011 the tallies were rolling in.

In Steiner, Texas, 23 homes destroyed. In Spicewood, more than 10 square miles burned. Whole swaths of Central Texas were without power. In Bastrop, at least 400 buildings were lost and the fire was still raging out of control. And even more towns were consumed by the fires.

The fires claimed two lives, more than 1,600 homes, many pets and livestock, and thousands of acres of wildland. Back in 2012, a year after the fires changed so many Central Texan lives, KUT News debuted a one-hour special: “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires.” (An abridged version is available here.)

Looking back, KUT’s StateImpact Texas reported that 2011’s drought of record created a perfect storm for the blaze:

Chris Barron, Executive Director of the Fireman’s and Fire Marshals Association of Texas, remembers that the 2011 wildfire season got off to an ominous start with the Possum Kingdom Lake fire in March. “And I’ll never forget talking to Chief Steve Purdue of the Mineral Wells Fire Department,” Barrons says. “And I asked him what he’s up to. And his immediate response was, ‘I’ve got fire all around me, I gotta talk to you later.’ And that kind of set the tone for the rest of the season.”

The rest of the season was a scorcher. As the summer of 2011 wore on, temperatures broke records and the earth cracked. Vegetation died. Then in the week before Labor Day, officials began to caution that Central Texas was beginning to look like a powder keg.

While the fire claimed two human lives, many more pets perished in the flames. Survivors say it was among the most traumatic loss due to the fires. Steiner Ranch resident Michelle Bielinski recounted that as the flames bore down on her neighborhood, she noticed dogs were still inside her neighbor’s otherwise empty home.

“We were going to break the window to see if we can get them out, but we weren’t able to,” she told KUT News, and ultimately, the pets didn’t make it: rescuers told her “there weren’t enough fire personnel for people.”

Featured below, and in Monday’s Texas Standard broadcast, are excerpts of first-person stories like these — from Smithville, Bastrop and Steiner Ranch – range from when the fires were still burning to after the fires were extinguished and since.

Debbie Opdahl (Photo via Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KU)

“We got up on the roof of our house and we could see all around Central Texas, and there were fires burning in Steiner Ranch and Bastrop and Leander and it just looked like – and still fires burning all around us and it just looked like – it looked like all of Texas was burning.” (Debbie Opdahl)

Laura Kelly (Photo via Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT)

“A lot of us were watching and could hear propane tanks exploding. You could see where they were trying to spray with water.” (Laura Kelly)

To hear more stories, listen to the audio player above.