On top of the hill overlooking the Hidden Pine Valley, an area just west of Smithville, are the charred remains of pine trees destroyed by the 2011 Labor Day wildfire that ravaged more than 34-thousand acres, destroyed over 16-hundred homes and took the lives of two people.
Four years later, the area just off Hwy 71 is once again blanketed with smoke from wildfires that still burn between Buescher and Bastrop State Parks. Inside the park, army helicopters overhead dip down into a small lake to fill up their large buckets with water that’ll be spread on critical areas of the fire.
As fire crews continue to contain and extinguish sections of the fire, shifting high winds concern state officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, who was on the ground in Bastrop County on Thursday.
“Because of weather conditions what they are we are adding more resources as we speak. We are also benefiting and very very thankful to FEMA. We made a request to FEMA for a Fire Management Assistance Grant and it was immediately approved,” Abbott said.
Abbott made a disaster declaration for Bastrop County after a briefing with state fire officials.
The fires continue to threaten hundreds of area-homes, causing dozens to seek shelter, food, and resources from the county and volunteer groups.
Since the fires started, homeowner David Birch said he can’t get the smell of smoke out of his head. Birch and his four children lost everything to the 2011 wildfire.
“Even though we rebuilt, it wasn’t what we had before and we’re just now getting it all cleaned up out there... and here we go again,” Birch said.
Birch was asked to evacuate his family at 3 o’clock in the morning on Thursday.
“And the kids were all freaked out, you know my little twelve year old boy, he’s got his bug-out bag, so he’s ready to go but my daughter has got her entire house, because they lost everything in the first fire,” Birch said.
Birch said if his home burns down, he and his family will relocate. He, like many residents with children duck into the converted Smithville Rec Center on their lunch hour to check on whether their home has been destroyed or passed on by the wildfire.
Steve Sims and his wife were also evacuated on Thursday after a neighbor’s back porch caught on fire. Sims property in 2011, suffered only minor damage but he’s not sure he and his family will be that lucky this time.
“We’ve been through this rodeo before, so we just got to keep going. The only bad thing is we sent out a check a little bit late for our insurance and our insurance company said they cancelled our insurance, a day before the fire,” Sims explained.
State officials say unlike the 2011 fire, the ground in Bastrop County today isn’t as dry, but there is concern that a cold front with projected high winds could cause the fire to spread and change direction.