96° F Thursday, July 27, 2017

For every person who experienced last September’s massive wildfire, there’s a story to tell. Firefighters, law enforcement officers and first responders worked frantically – at the beginning – to save lives by evacuating people. And they did a great job – two lives were lost, a large price to be sure, but the thousands who were saved can mostly be credited to those who worked one step ahead of the rapidly-rushing fire, yelling and screaming at residents to get out. Haunting video footage captured on dash-cams tells the story of some of these brave acts. Their mission was to save lives and it was a single-minded one. Many residents were not given the time to pack up beloved pets and cherished life mementoes.

For the people who were displaced through a week or more of anxious wondering – is my house still there? – it was another kind of hell. County and emergency personnel were working days on end with no rest, but the answers were not coming fast enough for those who stood to lose the most – everything.

For some, when residents were finally allowed to go back into their neighborhoods, the news was good. Somehow, through the capriciousness of the fire’s behavior, houses here and there were still standing. Some were in the middle of the total destruction of the homes around them. A whole block might have burned to the ground, missing only one house. There was no rhyme or reason, and there still are unanswered questions.

For others, the news was the worst possible. A lifetime of memories, pets and more – gone, never to be seen again. Some faced financial hardship. Some had insurance coming. Some reached out for help from any source offering it. But they all faced a future of going forward with the lives they had known before gone in a flash.

The big question for those who lost everything in the Bastrop County Complex Fire was: Should we stay and rebuild or should we leave? For many, the reason they moved here in the first place – the serenity and beauty of the landscape – was gone. For some, the reason they lived here – family and friends – was still here. Those factors and more played a large part in the decision of two families, who lost everything in the fire.

Ginny and Terry Pickering – rebuild

It’s been kind of a running joke for the Pickerings that Terry has the same name, but is no relation to, the man who would become sheriff of Bastrop County. They’ve fielded plenty of phone calls, however, especially around election time.

Ginny and Terry, sweethearts since high school, moved here in May 2006, after Terry retired from his job with the municipal government in New Jersey. There were a couple of good reasons.

“We wanted to be near the kids and grandkids and we wanted to get away from the snow,” Ginny said.

Their son and daughter-in-law and their two grandkids lived right off Texas 21 in the KC Estates area. Their home survived the fire. Ginny and Terry fell in love with the pine trees and purchased their lot in 2000 while here for their son’s wedding. They knew they wanted to retire here.

The lot was across Texas 21 from their son’s house. It was covered in pine trees. And, it was very close to ground zero of the fire, probably a few miles away.

“The trees blocked the highway noise,” Ginny said. “We only cleared enough to build.”

The couple used the same builder who built their son’s house. Terry settled into retirement, while Ginny found a job in the same industry she had worked in before.

The fire

Terry was not feeling well on the day of the fire. In fact, he would soon face major surgery. But their grandchildren – who have birthdays close to each other – were celebrating with a party at a local children’s play center. Not planning to stay too long, Terry did not even bring his wallet. At 1:30 p.m., they left for the party.

Around 3:30 p.m., it was time to go home. They left the party and as they walked outside, noticed the sky was dark.

“I thought it was rain clouds,” Ginny remembered.

She says she realized it was smoke as soon as they turned onto Texas 21 from Texas 95. The other odd thing was all the traffic streaming down Texas 21 in the opposite direction. They made it as far as Loop 150 at Bastrop State Park before they got to the first roadblock.

“They wouldn’t even let us back in to grab anything,” she said.

All the couple had was the clothes on their backs. The rest of the family was still at the party, blissfully unaware of what was happening.

They went to a local hotel, where they stayed for five days. During that time, Ginny was informed by someone who was in the burn area, that her house was gone. She had been calling her phone, relieved each time the answering machine picked up. The last time she called was at 8:30 a.m. on Monday. She got the news that her deck was on fire at 11 a.m.

Her daughter-on-law called Tom McClure, the Smithville builder who had built both their home. He called Ginny on Monday night, at that time not even knowing yet if he was going to be evacuated.

“He said, ‘If you and Terry want to rebuild, we’ll get you in as soon as possible’,” Ginny remembered.

For Terry and Ginny, it was never really a question of staying or leaving. Even with their beloved trees gone, the grandkids still lived here.

“The reason we came here was still here,” Ginny said.

Terry added that the couple has found good neighbors in their little subdivision.

After staying in the hotel for five days, the couple rented an RV in a local park. During their months there, Terry underwent and recovered from major surgery. Ginny went back to work. Life went on. But even though they rebuilt their home almost exactly like the lost one (with a few upgrades), going through something so traumatic has changed them.

“You can’t explain what it’s like to lose everything,” Terry said. “Seems like you just get ahead a little bit and then wham!”

Ginny has always been particular. She takes good care of her things.

“Just when we thought we could take it easy, it feels like I’m starting all over again,” she said. “I would take back all of my things.”

Particularly missed are pictures and movies of their two sons, and pictures of parents that are no longer living. Ginny misses a pitcher and bowl set, the only thing she had gotten that belonged to her grandmother. There’s a picture of Terry as a baby and his brother at age three. His brother died shortly after the picture was taken. They had Christmas tree ornaments that their children had made each year, and one that Terry made in the second grade. Each year, they would lovingly decorate their tree with all the handmade ornaments that spanned the decades. They probably won’t have a tree this year.

In the middle of February, they moved back into their new home. Over the next few months, more than 100 trees were removed from their lot – leaving the area barren and the highway visible. Almost immediately, there was a heavy rain and with major erosion problems, the water came right up to the house.

“I know we need rain, but every time it rains, I hold my breath,” Ginny said.

Amidst the loss and stress, they are grateful for the support and love they’ve received.

“We still have each other,” Terry said. “So thankful for all the help we’ve received.”

Bob and Georgia Parmelee – leave

One could not say that Bob and Georgia Parmelee were not invested in their adopted community of Bastrop.

Having interrupted their peripatetic lifestyle in 2007, Bob and Georgia moved from Santa Fe, N.M., to Tahitian Village. As with the Pickerings, family was the main reason, but the beautiful scenery didn’t hurt.

“We left our home in Santa Fe to come to Bastrop primarily to help support my daughter’s family after her husband became ill,” Bob said. “They lived in Pine Forest. We had another daughter in Tahitian Village and a son in Austin.  Tahitian Village was the obvious choice as it was close to all. It was also blessed with beautiful trees and was close to several state parks.”

Having made the move, Bob and Georgia became involved in their new home in several ways. They both joined Calvary Baptist Church, where Georgia sings in the choir. Georgia also became active at the Bastrop Opera House and appeared in several musicals, such as “Hats, the Musical,” and “Talking With.” A former professor of music at the University of Texas, Georgia also served as a vocal coach for the musical “Souvenirs” and says she loved singing serious music in Jeff Brister’s Community Chorus. She is also the pianist with a group of Calvary Baptist singers who entertain at Silver Pines Nursing Home twice a month.

Bob, a retired high-tech industry “turnaround” specialist who served in the U.S. Army from 1965-1968, was heavily involved in local politics and ran for city council in 2010. His run for office was spurred by, among other things, the ill-fated, proposed Bastrop city tree ordinance, which the council rejected after citizen outcry. As part of that outcry, Parmelee authored a PowerPoint presentation in January 2010 that included the accurate prediction that “we could lose hundreds of homes and lives in a single afternoon.”

That wasn’t really news to county officials and the county’s emergency management team, who had been warning of the firebox conditions in the pine forests for several years. But for Bob, it illustrated a need for citizen involvement in what he – and his supporters – perceived as a city council focusing on the wrong problem.

“The presentation warned that the city was working on the wrong problem and should have aggressively moved forward with a forest thinning program, rather than placing restrictions on tree removal,” he said.

After his defeat at the polls, Bob went on to become active in the nationwide TEA Party movement and formed the Bastrop County Taxpayer’s Association – a watchdog group that still meets today.

The Parmelees were one of the many Tahitian Village residents who lost their home in the fire. After staying in their travel trailer for a little while, the couple made the decision to leave Bastrop County and purchased a new home in Travis County, in Austin.

“The family ties that brought us to Bastrop have been severed,” Bob said. “Our son-in-law was admitted to the hospital the day before the fire began and passed shortly thereafter.  Both of my daughters lost their homes in the fire and have moved away.  In addition we were interested in buying a home in a gated-condominium complex. Such homes are not available in Bastrop.”

They plan to pick up traveling where they left off five years ago, as well as remaining active in music and the church. Bob will publish a book, “A Bridge Apart” about the Mexican Revolution that he finished just prior to moving to Bastrop.

Their advice

Both the Pickerings and the Parmelees stress that carrying homeowners insurance with a reputable company is paramount.

“I’m a fanatic about insurance,” said Ginny Pickering, so much so that even after their home burned down in September, she still mailed in her payment in October.

“I didn’t want to take a chance,” she said.

The Parmelees seconded the advice to be sure and insure your home well, but added that keeping copies of important documents, and citizen participation in government decisions, is also vital.

“Have copies made of all key paintings and photographs and store them in a safety deposit box,” Bob said.  “Use only fire resistant or fire proof construction and maintain a 100-foot defensible fire space. Resist efforts by politicians to fritter away tax revenues on corner-stone follies and insist that adequate spending be undertaken on forest thinning and other conservation efforts.”


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