89° F Thursday, June 22, 2017

For many in Bastrop County, remembering where they were when they got wind of the Bastrop County Complex Fires is burned into memory.

Even a year after their experiences, first responders react with thoughtful pauses and dramatic gesturing when talking about what they went through. To a person, they defer any heroic labeling, but instead point to their colleagues as the real heroes.

For Smithville Police Chief Rudy Supak, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011 was a vacation day and he was with his family at his dad’s place in Kerrville.

“I was really just relaxing when I got the Nixle alert on my phone,” Supak said, referring to a cell phone application that provides notification services in emergencies.

Supak said after he heard about the fires from his squad in Smithville, he quickly packed up the family and made for Smithville. Supak’s wife, Mindy, was posting Facebook updates as the family scrambled to get back home. Several roads were closed and Supak said he had to take some long detours to get to Smithville. There were some very tense moments as the family dealt with rumors of an evacuation.

Writing on Facebook, Mindy said, “Say what you may about people who use FB. But during this catastrophe it’s been a lifeline of info, especially with no cable TV, Internet and sporadic cell phone service. Thank goodness for this service.”

Once Supak arrived there were dozens of places he needed to be. The department was closing roads that had been determined to be too dangerous to drive, as well as directing traffic along routes that bypassed the fire.

Supak said there was a level of confusion for a lot of people, but others were quick to coordinate needed resources, including the evacuee shelter at the Smithville Recreation Center and at churches around town, including the Supak family’s church, First Baptist Church of Smithville.

Pastor Michael Murphy became Supak’s riding partner on several missions coordinating relief trucks, checking on shelters for the Bastrop County Ministerial Alliance and even checking homes where people might have been trapped.

Supak also provide communications for the Texas Forest Service as channels broke down between firefighting agencies. Supak was able to relay messages for the service, including during an air drop of water when firefighters were along an area with electrical transmission lines.

Supak said the department received a distress call from a driver who was stranded along Ponderosa Road between Smithville and Bastrop. The fire was raging throughout the area and thick smoke left the driver with only a general idea of where he was. His frantic calls for any kind of help prompted Supak to get together a small group of volunteers, including firefighter Jack Page and a brush truck.

As the volunteer vehicles sped down the road with lights flashing, the stranded motorist began heading across a field toward them in his truck.

“He was hauling across this field and all we could see were his headlights,” Supak said. “When he went down in a ditch, they would disappear and then he would pop back up and his lights would shine through the smoke, which was black as night.”

As the stranded driver approached the paved road, firefighters were forced to deal with a raging wall of fire that threatened to cut the vehicles off from Hwy 71, a scenario that could have been deadly.

“He goes through a fence and when he hits the road he heads straight for the highway, which was being held open by the firefighters,” Supak said. “Everyone then headed out. I don’t know how much longer we would have lasted, maybe just moments, before the fire came right over the area.”

Supak said he never saw the truck again.

Supak remembers long hours, days turning into night and back into day. He is thankful for the multitude of firefighters and volunteers that appeared all around to town helping at shelters, with food and by fighting the fire relentlessly.

Supak is also proud of some old friends from Wimberley. Mindy went to school with Traci Happner Maxwell, the mother of a Wimberley football player. They two had been excited about a game between the Texans and the Smithville Tigers. As the fire unfolded, they realized it wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, the Texans held an intersquad scrimmage to raise funds for Smithville, which brought in trailer loads of needed supplies and funding to Smithville, a gesture that made national headlines.

We live in the woods

In 2005, Sara and Scott Sutcliffe moved to the woods of Bastrop from Austin. The couple works for the University of Texas and soon after setting up a homestead, they volunteered with the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department.

Soon, Scott became the assistant chief of the department. On the day of the fire, the couple was at home listening to their fire radios.

“Scott was showing our chief a test print of an ID card,” Sara said. “We had just acquired a card printer and were testing it out. That’s the only one it every made.”

Fighting the fire together, the couple found themselves in more than one life-threatening situation as  flames engulfed the area around them.

“I recall just feeling sick to my stomach for most of the first days,” said Sara. “I also remember when we were burned over the first time along Highway 21; the forest just went up all around us.”

Working on adrenaline and fighting fatigue, Sara said the Lost Pines crew was being showered with embers as pieces of burning wood came down like rain.

“Scott was yelling at me and as I looked up I realized we were surrounded by fire,” Sara recalled. “I ran into the fire truck and felt the heat diminish slightly as we got in and shut the door. I don’t think I quite grasped how close that was. I felt like the floor was burning away and my stomach sank. Not again, I thought.”

The couple was also trapped when a brush truck stopped working on a narrow road. Scott, driving a 5-ton tanker, pushed the brush truck backwards while Captain Jerry Tuttle steered the broken vehicle until it could be moved off the road, all while a wall of fire raced their way.

Nearly every member of the Heart of the Pines lost something in the blaze and by Wednesday night, members learned that 20 of the 24 firefighters were homeless, including Sara and Scott.

While being interviewed by the national press and TV crews, Scott said “We live in the woods. The woods burn. They burn.”

Despite a gnawing feeling that their homes were in danger, the Heart of the Pines volunteers joined with dozens of other firefighters to save homes.

Despite their best defensive efforts, the Sutcliffe’s home was completely destroyed on Monday afternoon. Scott and Sara, using their own restored fire truck, attempted to spray water around their home and the homes of their neighbors but nothing came out of the hydrant.

“Scott yelled for me to go in and grab what I could,” Sara said. “Then our chief said we had lost our escape route to Hwy 71 and that the head of the fire was getting close to Park Road 1C, which was our only other way out. We had to go.”

Sara said the couple had retrieved several items on Sunday, including most of their pet cats, although three of them were outside and could not be found before they were forced to leave as the attempt to defend their home became a scramble to safety for the couple and firefighter Roland Poppy.

“When we left there were several bulldozers running from the fire along Hwy 71 and I recall fire on both sides of the road,” said Sara. “We came back in the evening and there was basically nothing left. It was a nightmare to see and I thought of the three cats I wasn’t able to find earlier.”

Sara said the couple was able to put some water on a part of the house that contained a vault to try to save what was inside, including her doctorate degree.

One of the three cats was found later and has fully recovered.

“We lived in a hotel for a while and then borrowed a friend’s RV for about six months, which was about five-and-a-half months too long,” Sara said. “We moved into our rebuilt house during Spring Break in March 2012.”

The Sutcliffes said the long ordeal fighting the fire was similar to what she had heard from her grandparents about living in London during The Blitz.

“People lived in the underground and found ways to just try to carry on, find some sense of normalcy and camaraderie, and that’s what happened to the folks in my department,” Sara said. “I mean, I even figured out that if we filled a bucket from the tank on one of the tenders and carried it to the bathroom in there with a flashlight, we had a flushing toilet. That means a lot when you haven’t had access to one.”

The couple has a new home and is adjusting to getting things back to normal. They are grateful for the assistance they received as firefighters during the worst of the wildfire.

“We owe a lot to the Smithville VFD and the city of Smithville. We were a little green spot in the black and they daily brought us bags of  ice and food,” Sara said. “We became a place the police and EMS and the Native American firefighters could come by and rehab at when in the area.”

A horrendous sight

Lisa Rinehart is a technician at Seton Smithville Regional Hospital and secretary and firefighter with the Smithville Volunteer Fire Department.

During the Complex Fire, she juggled her duties at the hospital while fighting the fire for two weeks. Rinehart was one of many Seton associates from Smithville, Bastrop and Austin that volunteered  many days to aid fire victims, which included 37 Seton employees, 27 of whom lost their homes.

The Sunday the fire started Rinehart was with friends at the Colorado River when her pager went off.

“I was with two other firefighters and needless to say, when we left our river paradise and arrived at the fire station we had no idea what kind of a day we were in for,” said Rinehart.

Rinehart joined a crew dispatched to a ranch west of Smithville and directly across from the Colo Vista and Tahitian Village area on the south side of the river.

Firefighters expected the fire to jump the river and move south, but it moved west toward the Hill Prairie area. The crew worked with others for several hours to extinguish the blaze. Later, crews were sent to Hidden Shores to watch for fires crossing the river.

“We watched the sky for hot embers. I fell asleep at 4 a.m. and was up at 4:45 a.m., wide awake just watching and waiting,” explained Rinehart. “After the sun rose Monday morning, we could see the smoke. What a horrendous sight that was, watching across the Colorado River while it was burning acres upon acres – barns, fences, homes, even livestock.”

The fire did not jump the river and Rinehart was sent back to the station and was quickly assigned to a rehab truck, which provides water, food and other supplies to firefighters and volunteers working the blaze.

“Assigned to rehab, we made our way to Alum Creek to aid our fellow firefighters, taking shifts Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday so that each firefighter had a couple of hours to rest, eat, tend to errands, visit with their family, etc. What a sight that was – driving into a huge smoke cloud and fearing what lay ahead. After staging at the intersection of Cottletown Road and Highway 71, we passed out water, food,  and gear to replace that which had broken (safety glasses, helmet shields, gloves, etc.) and waited for the firefighters that were up Cottletown Road. I talked with all of them, some from other departments, and the exhaustion level was high.”

Rinehart was also there when the Smithville Independent School District supplied a school bus and a driver to shuttle volunteers to the fire zone to put out hot spots.

“We took them to many locations to cut down smoldering trees, tree stumps, etc. There was lots of mop up to do and our civilian volunteers and other volunteer firefighters never faltered. They did what we showed them to do without any hesitation. Their dedication was heartfelt by all of us,” said Rinehart. “We had civilian volunteers helping us who had lost their homes. Some of them were there every waking minute, just waiting to go out and help us get the fire contained!”

Comments

  1. Svenska Lehrer says:

    I pray these memories aren’t punctuate this year as the drought worsens. We are in a terrible time again. There are numerous areas throughout the county that are waiting to go up in flames. May the Lord watch over us.

  2. Prudence says:

    My understanding is that, weather patterns are the same as in 2011 – high winds, low rainfall, and forecasts for a conspicuously long, hot summer. All the dry kindling remains on the ground in the west side of Tahitian Village where the fire was prevented from clearing. What the Billy Heck, Bastrop? How many times do you have to learn a lesson?

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