Texas Wildfire Affects Parsons Student
An hour after Parsons senior Elissa Alcala phoned her parents back home in the small town of Bastrop, Texas one recent Sunday, she got another call from them. A wildfire had suddenly appeared near the Alcala family property of some 50 acres, and Elissa’s parents had been forced to evacuate on short notice.
“My dad called me as they were driving off the property, Alcala said last Tuesday reflecting on a momentous week. “My parents basically left with the clothes on their back.”
The fire, propelled by strong winds from Tropical Storm Lee, spread so fast the Alcalas only had time to grab a spare set of clothing and the neighbor’s dog, whose owners were out of town. Residents of Bastrop’s Circle D subdivision had received an evacuation order from ill-equipped volunteer firefighters who were suddenly faced with a raging inferno.
It was Monday before the Alcalas were able to return. Circle D had been completely destroyed.
“Everyone lost their home,” Alcala said. “My neighbor has a barn still standing but that’s about it.”
The Alcalas and their neighbors lost everything. All told, the city of Bastrop saw over 1,800 homes destroyed. Two hundred people are still unaccounted for.
Alacala bemoaned the lack of national attention on what happened in Bastrop, comparing the coverage received by the destruction of 1,800 homes to the media firestorm set off by Hurricane Irene. She said she had trouble getting information on the fire, and that coverage was preempted by, among other things, a GOP presidential debate, at which the Texas Governor Rick Perry was in attendance.
Alcala regrets that there wasn’t a better plan to supplement the volunteer firefighters that are responsible for much of Bastrop. She also criticized FEMA for taking nearly a week to set up in the area after the start of the fire.
“If it was anywhere else besides this small town in Texas that no ones heard of,” she said, “some action would have been taken.”
Among the many things the Alcala family lost, some stand out most. Elissa spoke of a rocking horse that her late grandfather made for her when she was young. Her grandmother’s ashes were also in the house.
“They’re probably somewhere scattered among the ashes of the house,” she said, “but we don’t have them anymore.”
The family’s prolific photo albums, from years of vacations, celebrations, and holidays, have been destroyed. And the family is still missing a cat, Dale, although on that count they’re luckier than some — one of the Alcala’s neighbors is missing all five of his dogs.
The Alcalas had adequate home insurance, unlike many in Bastrop, but they don’t plan to rebuild. Having long thought about relocating when the last of their children left for college, Elissa’s parents are moving to Santa Fe. Many are making the choice to leave — a factor which poses a threat to the future and livelihood of the small town.
“I think a lot of people are planning to not stay out there,” Alcala said. “All the land out there, it’s ruined, and its going to take a lot of time to come back.”
The place where she grew up used to be beautiful, Alcala recalled. Circle D was in what’s called the Lost Pines, a dislocated pine forest that was a remnant of the last ice age. Dried as it was, like the rest of central Texas, which is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history, much of the old forest burned in a day. Only 100 acres of the 6,000 acre Bastrop State Park remains untouched by fire.
“All of them are gone,” she said. “It’s a depressing sight to see.”
Alcala returns to Bastrop this weekend, perhaps for the last time. Looking back, she regrets her decision to stay in New York this summer, wishing she had the chance “to see my house one last time.” A fashion design BFA candidate who graduates in May, she has struggled to come to terms with the loss of her childhood home.
“Knowing that you have a home somewhere that you can always go back to is deeply comforting,” she said. “Wherever my parents are, that’s not necessarily home.”
But even after personal trauma, it’s Alcala’s insistence that attention should be paid that sticks with her.
“Bastrop, even though I never would have admitted it a few years ago, meant a lot to me. And the people there are the people I grew up with and people I care about. The fact that they lost their home and no one knows about it,” she added, “it hurts.”