By Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald
September 12, Day 9 – Bastrop Fire Complex
“Even though this is a tough time in Bastrop County, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Dealing with this process has made us stronger.”
Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald
Interview with freelance journalist Mario Loyola
Over my 14-year tenure as Bastrop County judge, I have learned valuable lessons in maintaining effective functionality and sanity in stressful situations. One of the lessons I learned early is to look at all problems not so much as problems to solve, but as opportunities to grow and become stronger as an individual, as a governing body, and as a community. The Bastrop Complex fires and Union Chapel blaze were such opportunities for growth. In retrospect, I can see clearly how earlier “problems” in Bastrop County helped equip us to deal with the fires that consumed a total of more than 34,000 acres, 1,669 homes, and 40 commercial properties.
In 2009, Bastrop County experienced a similar firestorm, albeit on a much smaller scale. In late February, a combination of drought conditions, high winds, low humidity, and a readily available source of fuel ignited into the Wilderness Ridge fire that eventually consumed more than 1,200 acres, flattened more than three dozen homes and businesses, and lasted days before full containment.
The quick assessment by first responders from the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office and the fire department – some 10 minutes upon arrival – to focus resources on the evacuation of residents saved more lives than we will ever know.
Quick coordination with state and federal agencies for additional resources –facilitated by an updated Emergency Management Plan – ensured that the incident command team hit the ground running. It also ensured that the infusion of hundreds of highly trained personnel and tons of heavy equipment occurred smoothly. All stayed focused on one goal, containing the fire line.
As a result, Bastrop County’s Emergency Management Office, under the leadership of Michael Fisher, developed existing agreements/protocols with the Texas Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and others to supply personnel and equipment.
At that time, the Bastrop Convention Center was also designated as an alternative incident command center, in case facilities that had been used in the past such as schools weren’t available to house the hundreds of professionals deployed to support firefighters with sophisticated tracking and monitoring resources.
Fast-forward to Sept. 4, the day the Bastrop Complex fires broke: Within hours the Convention Center morphed into an information hub for news media nationwide as well as residents. The lessons we had learned over the years and the plans we had to put into place as a result helped us tremendously.
Looking back, I could see how everything worked together – that everything served a purpose. The plan that seemed to be of no real benefit looking forward became very beneficial as a foundational framework – a building block for the Emergency Management and Recovery Plan we now have in place. I can see clearly now how everything worked line upon line and precept upon precept for our present good.
When dealing with a disaster of this magnitude, you see a whole different level of emotions. Tempers run short, and stress levels are tense. The Complex fires didn’t discriminate. Families at every income level experienced profound loss. However, collectively as a community, we realized that at the end of the day, the causes that unite us are much bigger than the reasons that divide us.
As county judge, I felt directly accountable to residents, which motivated me to collaborate with experts in various fields to make the best decisions possible. I realized that the judgment standard applied to this situation would be counted in the number of lives protected. That only two lives were lost is a testament to the training and tenacity of our first responders and a community working together.
From the first responders to the extra state and federal staff, we met that standard. There were so many at the city, county, state and federal level who came to our aid and shared their time, talents and resources with us in this process. I appreciate and applaud those efforts. I also appreciate the calls and offers of assistance from other county judges from around the State of Texas.
On Sept. 9, Day 6 of the Bastrop Complex incident, President Obama issued a major disaster declaration for the State of Texas, triggering the release of federal funds to help Texans statewide affected by wildfires.
These funds and others provided by FEMA’s designation of Bastrop as a public assistance county allowed right of way debris removal to begin quickly, ensuring residents safe passage on roads. Standing burned trees were a significant safety hazard.
In late September, the Bastrop County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a Recovery Plan. That’s where we are now – rebuilding with a renewed sense of community and an appreciation for the human spirit that would not allow us to be destroyed by fire but joined with no regard for lines of separation and contention – geo political lines, racial lines, gender and socio economic lines – to help us rise from the ashes and exchange the ashes for beauty. H