The New York Times
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
Tex. — It was one simple line of text, one out of 243: 112 South Buckhorn Drive.
Bettye Porterfield found it on Wednesday as she ran her finger over a piece of
paper taped to a window. She and her husband, Ken, had lived at that address for
nearly nine years — they called it their little cottage in the pines — but now
her home was gone. The list made it official.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she turned from the list attached to the windows
of the Bastrop convention center. Her husband put his arm around her shoulders.
The quilt his mother had made by hand, the Bible that had been in his family for
generations, the coconut carved up like an owl that their daughter had given him
— they lost all of it.
“When you see it in writing, it kind of makes it more real,” said Ken
The scale of the disaster that has devastated this Central Texas town of 7,200
can be measured in absence. Texas Kiln Products, a lumber mill at the edge of
Bastrop State Park, is gone, and so are 116 Nugget Lane and 256 Kelley Road and
112 Timberline Lane and 259 Cattlemens Drive and 101 North Mockingbird Lane.
“It’s all surreal,” said Deborah Shelton, 63, whose husband and brother-in-law
owned Texas Kiln Products, which specialized in native Texas woods. “Everybody’s
saying that and it’s true. I feel like I’m watching this on a television show or
a movie, because I haven’t actually touched the ground where the ashes are.”
On Wednesday, firefighters were able to beat back some of the flames of the most
destructive wildfire in the history of Texas — a 24-mile-long blaze in Bastrop
County that has killed two people, burned 34,356 acres and destroyed 576 homes
since it started Sunday afternoon. But for many residents what should been the
fourth day of the fire was really the first: County officials released a list of
the houses that they have confirmed have been destroyed so far.
Shortly before 11 a.m. Wednesday, the list — 12 sheets of paper taped into a
large rectangle, with 243 addresses total — was posted on the glass entrance of
the convention center, which has become an emergency command post. It was like a
list of the dead that is often released at the scene of major disasters, except
there were addresses and Zip codes instead of names and ages. People stood in
front of the sheets of paper throughout the day, recognizing their own and their
neighbors’ addresses. The pain was communal.
“This was our friend across the street,” said Mrs. Porterfield, 71, as she
pointed at 109 South Buckhorn Drive, the address above theirs on the list.
Bastrop is a small-town everytown to the east of Austin with a Best Buy and a
Main Street, a place both historic — its timber industry supplied Austin with
lumber in the 1840s — as well as scenic. It bills itself as the “Home of the
Lost Pines” with its pine-covered hills, large swaths of which are now
blackened, and is home to an eclectic mix of ranchers, retirees, white-collar
professionals and blue-collar workers. One of the two bodies discovered on
Tuesday was identified by the authorities as that of Michael Troy Farr, 48, an
electrician for the City of Austin who was found outside his residence in the
nearby town of Smithville.
The fire has touched virtually everyone, and every thing. Public schools have
shut their doors for the week. Hundreds of people have been sleeping overnight
at emergency shelters, while other evacuees have rooms in local hotels or are
staying with friends or relatives. The Hills Prairie Livestock Auction building
became a kind of emergency shelter for evacuated horses and cattle. Since the
wildfire began, ranchers seeking a safe haven for their animals have housed
about 400 cows and 80 horses there.
Nearly 21,000 fires since last November have destroyed more than 1,500 homes
throughout the state, according to the Texas Forest Service. The Bastrop fire
has been the worst so far, and as of Wednesday evening, the forest service said,
it was still only about 30 percent contained.
Residents were told it was still too dangerous to check on the condition of
their homes, so before the list was posted, many of them had no idea if their
houses had survived. Still others remain uncertain because their house was not
among the 243 listed. The county’s top elected official, Judge Ronnie McDonald,
said he expected the number of destroyed houses to double.
Emotions have been running high for residents unable to see the damage for
themselves and frustrated by a lack of information. One woman was arrested by
state troopers for disregarding a barricade to get to her property.
“It’s a tough time,” Judge McDonald said. “People are either anxious, nervous,
upset — all the range of emotions. They lost personal belongings, memories, all
those things. The main thing we have to focus on is safety. It’s tough telling
someone they can’t get into their house.”
SYDNEY — John Ryan watched in horror as the sky above his farm in southern
Australia turned from blue to black. Ten minutes later, the forest around his
house was engulfed in flames.
He and a neighbor huddled inside his house while the worst of the blaze passed
overhead. Then Mr. Ryan ran outside and began hosing down scores of tiny ember
fires that had started in the gutters, on the roof and all around his mountain
Mr. Ryan’s home was spared, but his neighbor was not so fortunate.
“It burned everything as far as you can see,” Mr. Ryan told a radio station as
he surveyed the damage to his neighbor’s home in Glenburn, 60 miles northeast of
Melbourne. “There’s nothing left; dead animals everywhere.”
Victoria state police said that at least 84 people were killed in a series of
wildfires that tore across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday, the
country’s deadliest firestorm ever. Some died trying to escape the fires in
their cars; others were caught up trying to protect their homes.
The death toll from the fires was the worst since the “Ash Wednesday” fires of
1983, when 75 people were killed and hundreds of homes destroyed across southern
More than 700 houses were razed and two townships were almost completely leveled
in the disaster. Police said there were at least two children among the dead,
and warned that the death toll could rise as emergency crews searched for bodies
in the hardest hit towns.
More than 80 people were hospitalized across the fire zone. The victims included
at least 20 burn patients, some of whom were unlikely to survive, hospital
officials told reporters.
The fires were driven by hot winds of more than 62 miles per hour, and
temperatures that peaked at 117 degrees in Melbourne, making Saturday the city’s
hottest day on record.
Witnesses described seeing trees and houses explode into flames as ash and soot
rained from amber skies. Many, like Mr. Ryan, were stranded at their properties,
with no firefighters in sight and no time to escape the inferno.
“You couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t do anything and you couldn’t get out,”
Mr. Ryan said. “You just have to hope that the house wouldn’t burn down.”
At Kinglake, where at least 18 people died and most of the town’s homes were
destroyed, police said they found the charred bodies of several victims in cars
littered along the highway. Six people were found dead in one car, according to
The residents of nearby Marysville, an alpine village of about 600 people, were
counting their losses and considering their futures on Sunday after the fire
destroyed nearly every home and business in town. Aerial images showed rows of
buildings reduced to piles of tangled rubble along neat streets lined with
Around 30 residents who had not evacuated before Saturday spent the night
huddled on a grassy field near town while the blaze engulfed Marysville,
according to media reports. Two bodies were discovered in the town on Sunday,
and emergency crews continued to search through the wreckage.
Around 3,000 career and volunteer firefighters were battling against a dozen
large wildfires that had burned more than 770 square miles of forest and
farmland. Authorities said they suspected that at least some of the fires had
been lit by arsonists.
“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria,” Prime Minister
Kevin Rudd told reporters after meeting with emergency relief workers in
Melbourne. “This is an appalling tragedy.”
The government set up a 10 million Australian dollar ($6.5 million) relief fund,
including an immediate payment of 1,000 dollars ($650) to victims of the blaze.
Mr. Rudd also deployed the country’s army to the region to help fight the fires
and provide emergency help.
Choking back tears, John Brumby, the Victoria state premier, warned residents to
prepare for more casualties and property damage as the fires continued to burn
across the state.
Fires are common during Australia’s hot, dry summers, when the oil-rich
eucalyptus forests become especially vulnerable during lightening strikes or
sparks thrown from farm equipment. But a prolonged drought and the weekend’s
searing temperatures made recent conditions particularly bad.
ANGELES, Oct. 23 — Punishing winds and unstable thermal conditions — married
with strained firefighting resources — stymied efforts Tuesday to contain a slew
of wildfires burning for a third day across Southern California.
While firefighters late Tuesday began to get the upper hand on some fires in Los
Angeles county, officials in San Diego were left worried that the fires could
march toward more populated areas along the Pacific Ocean.
“As long as the east wind continues to blow, that is the direction things are
going,” said Roxanne Provaznik, spokeswoman for the California Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection. “There are a lot of homes on that coastal
community, so there is so much potential injury.”
By Tuesday, more than 400 square miles in seven counties had been consumed by
some 16 fires, flames fueled by high desert winds and hot temperatures that
remained largely impervious to air attacks, garden hoses, fire retardant or
prayers for relief.
The authorities said the blazes, raging from the Simi Valley northwest of Los
Angeles to the Mexican border, were responsible for two deaths, and possibly
five others. At least 25 firefighters and civilians were reported to have
By late Tuesday, the fires had consumed well over 1,000 homes and commercial
structures, with the authorities reporting that 68,500 homes remained
threatened. At least 500,000 people were estimated to have evacuated and
thousands more had been ordered to move, making the evacuation effort roughly
half the size of that from the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina. The
authorities said firefighters were overwhelmed as new blazes sparked and
existing ones thrashed in new directions, impeding efforts to focus energy and
resources. By midday, a new fire began in San Diego County even as fires
elsewhere became partially contained.
President Bush, responding to entreaties from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,
declared a state of emergency in California, paving the way for federal disaster
aid to arrive, and said he would survey the state on Thursday.
While Mr. Schwarzenegger said during a news conference Tuesday that he was
“happy” with the number of firefighters working the blazes, officials said that
they were stretched thin and that a lack of resources was as much a burden as
the temperatures and winds.
“Our resources are low,” Ms. Provaznik said in a telephone interview from San
Diego. “Our firefighters are stretched out because of the number of fires around
Mr. Bush, mindful of the embarrassment his administration suffered after the
Gulf Coast disaster two years ago, dispatched officials from the Department of
Homeland Security to assess the damage. Federal and local fire teams from
Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming joined the fight, and the governor called up 1,500
National Guard members.
The governor expanded his request to Mr. Bush on Tuesday afternoon, asking him
to raise his declaration to “major disaster,” which would affect how the state
is reimbursed later. The governor estimated that $75 million in federal aid
would be needed.
Tuesday evening, Gov. Schwarzenegger said he had ordered state prisons to deploy
their fire fighting muscle — including six fire engines and 18 fire captains —
to assist in fire fighting. The state’s corrections department also has more
than 2,640 trained inmate firefighters actively battling the southern California
wildfires today after being deployed by Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Swift emergency response efforts, most likely matched by memories of the
devastating fires here in 2003, may have contributed to the relatively low death
“These are big fires, tragic, and the impact of these things will last a long
time,” said Jodi Traversaro, spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Emergency
Services. “I think Katrina taught us a whole lot.”
Two fires in Los Angeles County were largely contained Tuesday night. “This is a
good news story," Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff, said at a news
conference. But the rest of the state was less lucky.
San Diego County remained the worst of the burning regions, with at least 1,250
homes and 102 buildings destroyed and half a million people, according to local
officials, displaced. The estimates of the number of people displaced, however,
varied wildly between state and local officials. Thousands of evacuees headed
for Qualcomm, the 60,000-seat home of the San Diego Chargers as others stuffed
into area hotels.
A shift in the prevailing winds in the area on Tuesday, from the fierce but
predictable Santa Ana winds, to more volatile western ones, also plagued
But the director of San Diego County’s Office of Emergency Services, Ron Lane,
said at a news conference Tuesday evening that he thought the corner had been
turned and that more favorable weather forecast would allow firefighters to make
real headway. “The worst is behind us,” Mr. Lane said.
For all the dislocation and destruction, the five deaths in San Diego County
that local officials attributed directly or indirectly to the fires as of
Tuesday afternoon also underscored how difficult it is to classify and describe
the real dimensions of a disaster that has, at least so far, mainly been
measured in property loss, charred landscape and disrupted life.
Three of the people who died were in their 90s, including two who died in
nursing homes in what county officials said were “natural causes.” The oldest
fatality, June E. Brewer, was 95. She died in her hotel room, the county said in
news release, after being evacuated.
Thomas James Varshock, 52, died on his property on Sunday, the county said,
during the Harris Fire the only death directly linked to fire. Another victim,
Suzanne Elizabeth Casey, 62, died in a fall in a restaurant, the county said,
but had previously been evacuated from her home.
In many areas, firefighters were no match for speeding flames and sought refuge
in aluminum fire shelters or retreated in the face of burning hillsides. Strong
winds made attacks from the air difficult.
“We tried to get back in there at about 5 a.m. but we couldn’t get through,”
John Miller, a United States Forest Service spokesman, said, referring to two
fires in the town of Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernardino National Forest,
where at least 100 homes and 5,000 acres have been destroyed. “It was a wall of
California residents who were forced to leave home struggled to sift through the
rumors. David Yurkovic, 43, was in a shelter in San Bernardino with his five
children and his pregnant wife, Roberta. “She’s due in two months; she doesn’t
feel so good,” he said. “I don’t know if my house is O.K. I have no idea. The
worst part here is the rumors.”
The speed and ferocity of the fires were fueled by a lethal combination of heat,
drought and the often hurricanelike Santa Ana winds that travel from the Mojave
Desert into the coastal mountains, which become hotter as they hit parched
Throughout Southern California, the sky was illuminated with a pink, hazy glow,
and smoke rose like a marine layer of fog. Angry red embers jumped from yards to
roads. Ash fell onto parked cars miles from fires.
The typically bustling Lake Arrowhead resembled a ghost town, with abandoned
shops and homes. A choking haze of smoke and ash covered the mountain, creating
dusk at noon. At 6,000 feet, the smoke blacked out the sun above and the valley
The closer to the center of the blazes, the louder the roaring crackle of fire.
The air filled with smoke, gas and fine particles, making it extremely difficult
to breathe comfortably in some areas. Air-quality experts implored residents to
curtail outdoor activities.
Not everyone obeyed orders to leave. Greg Curfman, 42, and his daughter
Brittney, 18, were among a group of Silverado Canyon residents who refused to
leave their homes. By 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Mr. Curfman was exhausted from helping
transfer the animals on his ranch to safe places around Orange County. “I’m
staying here unless it’s a last-ditch effort,” said Mr. Curfman, who has lived
in the canyon for 15 years.
In Castaic, Calif., a suburban enclave in northern Los Angeles County, a
fast-moving fire surprised local residents who had thought the troubles were
confined to areas to their south.
Roughly 60 Mexican firefighters from the border cities of Tijuana and Tecate
crossed into the United States on Sunday to help fight the fires, but they
scrambled home Monday when fires broke out south of the border.
A survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation found that avocado
and citrus groves, nurseries, vineyards, rangeland, and other farm and ranch
operations were possibly damaged, with thousands of horses evacuated to shelters
and livestock also possibly caught in the fires’ paths.
Reporting was contributed by Ana Facio Contreras
from Silverado Canyon,
Johnson from San Diego,
Marc Lacey from Mexico,
Jesse McKinley from Santa
Clarita and Regan Morris