Mizzy Zdroj, an artist and volunteer firefighter, checks on her chickens… (Deborah Cannon, Austin…)
Reporting from Smithville, Texas — Mizzy Zdroj and her fellow firefighters barreled down Cottletown Road, in pursuit of flames that had choked the sky with smoke and bedeviled the all-volunteer force.
"Stop!" she begged.
Zdroj hopped out of the truck and charged toward her wood-frame home, which she and her husband had spent years refurbishing. She threw open their chicken coops and the pen of the family donkey, Sally. Then she raced back to fighting the Bastrop County Complex blaze, which has devastated this patch of central Texas since it was sparked Sept. 4.
Two days later, another firefighter greeted his sleep-starved comrades with good news. Station No. 1 — the closer of two department stations to Zdroj's home — had been saved.
"My heart jumped with joy," she recalled. "I said, 'My place made it, right?' "
His face fell.
Zdroj soon learned the fire had touched other members of Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department. The firefighter with a 1-year-old daughter lost his house. So did another firefighter who'd battled cancer.
More than half of the department's 24 members lost their homes, said Assistant Chief Scott Sutcliffe, whose two-story, stone-facade house was among those reduced to rubble.
His antique gun collection was ruined. Nothing remained of the hot tub and the retractable roof, which allowed him and his wife, who's also a firefighter, to admire the stars.
"Oddly enough, knowing it was gone made it easier to fight the fire," said Sutcliffe, 49, who has fire insurance and plans to rebuild. "You quit having to worry about it."
The 34,068-acre Bastrop County blaze, which is 50% contained, has proved to be the most ruinous of the 181 fires that have singed Texas in the last week. As of Sunday, it had killed two people and destroyed 1,554 homes, a state record for a single fire.
Now the Heart of the Pines department is battling two adversaries: flames and heartache.
Like Sutcliffe, Zdroj has found some relief in work. It's not exactly solace, but it's something to do, something worthwhile.
Zdroj, 45, an artist with pink-streaked hair, alluded to her yellow Nomex uniform, which seems to swallow up her petite frame. "As long as I got this on," she said, "I can fight that fire. I can help, even if I don't have a place to go home to."
More than three-fourths of Texas' fire departments are run by volunteers, according to the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Assn. Like many of them, Heart of the Pines is short of manpower and money. It cares for 36 square miles of a region known as Lost Pines with hand-me-down trucks and a water tender with a "Franken-engine" Sutcliffe cobbled together with various parts.
The crew is collegial, throwing barbecues and ordering Sutcliffe helmet decals that shortened "assistant" to its first three letters. When the firefighters put in a septic tank, Zdroj's 8-year-old twin boys pitched in with pint-size shovels. The group sometimes goes a month without a call and is compensated mostly with thank-yous.
With much of drought-ravaged Texas in flames, Bastrop County initially relied on its nine volunteer fire departments, all about the size of Heart of the Pines, when fire erupted Sept. 4. They had no aircraft to survey the blaze or dump water and fire retardant.
"The fire was in control," said Mike Fisher, the county's emergency management coordinator.
The crews had never seen a fire like this. Flames roared through parched pines and post oaks, and the smoke churned like white water.
When the Sutcliffes arrived, flames swept over their water tender, but they got out OK.
Zdroj was alerted to the fire while she was at home with her adult daughter, Whitney Niemann, who was getting ready for a date with her boyfriend. "I looked at the sky. I thought it was a cloud at first," Zdroj recalled. "Then I realized it was smoke."
She asked her daughter to take the twins and their two small dogs, Boo and Weenie, to the local restaurant and gas station where their father, Chris, worked. Then she rushed to the front lines. As daylight dwindled, she said, "We started hearing the fire. It changed the sky. It's like when you put a flashlight under a pillowcase. It just glowed."
The crew zipped around the forest, defending what homes it could. A cluster of six homes survived. Others didn't. Zdroj was pained by dogs cowering in pens and cats scratching at windows.
At least the fire, as far as she knew, was still miles from her home.
Zdroj purchased her seven acres in 2005. She was swayed to buy it, in part, because of nearby Station No. 1. Her beloved grandpa had been a firefighter in Oklahoma; sometimes, she'd tag along when he doused flame-riddled hay bales and barns.
"That's hero stuff," Zdroj said one afternoon outside the Smithville Indoor Recreation Center, in between puffs on a Pall Mall cigarette. She joined the Heart of the Pines department about two years ago after the Wilderness Ridge Fire destroyed 26 homes in the area.