After a tragedy, it is often said, telling one's story is a critical milestone on the road to recovery, and almost a year after a wildfire caused unprecedented damage in Bastrop County, community members are doing just that.
A few weeks ago, residents began work on an archive that will collect and preserve pictures, posters, government documents and other accounts of September's devastating fires. The larger of two wildfires, the costliest and most destructive in Texas history, ravaged 32,400 acres, charred the county's beloved Lost Pines forest, destroyed 1,696 homes and killed two people.
"Until we are able to tell the story, we haven't done our job," said Mike Fisher, the county's emergency management director and the driving force behind the creation of the Historical Archive Task Force.
Fisher said rebuilding efforts have progressed smoothly — about 600 homes have been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt — and the county will sow hundreds of thousands of pine seeds this winter.
But amid all the forward momentum, Fisher, along with a librarian, a graduate student specializing in archiving, the county clerk and a judge, have volunteered to look back.
"I just thought that this has to be done," said Mickey Duvall, a librarian at the Bastrop Public Library. "What I really want to do is collect as much information and records as I can ... from anybody and everybody that had anything to do with the fire."
Duvall's office at the library has served as headquarters for the project. Working full-time and drawing a salary from a $700,000 National Emergency Grant the county received for disaster recovery, Bastrop residents Frank Williams, a former school guidance counselor, and Jamie Porter, a student studying computer technology, have begun the long and tedious process of taking an inventory of the contents of a small stack of boxes cluttering the corner of Duvall's office.
They have catalogued everything from the briefing maps used by emergency responders to cards made by the children of Bastrop County to thank those individuals. One card, drawn by a boy named Ben, shows a "super cop" and other first responders hosing off a burning home. "Thank you for evacyowateing (sic) us" is written in the unmistakable hand of a young student.
"People need to know what's going on, what happened," said Porter. The archive "is history, history in the making."
Although Fisher and Duvall have been talking about the archive for months, the project is still in its infancy, Duvall said. The task force had its first meeting Thursday to lay out a plan for collecting and archiving materials. There is still more to collect, Duvall said, and the task force also must find a permanent home for the archive.
While the archive is meant to document a painful moment in Bastrop history, the archiving process will also serve as a therapy of sorts for a community still discussing what happened last September.
"The more that people can talk about (the fire), the better they'll be in their healing process," said task force member and County Clerk Rose Pietsch, whose office still sees displaced residents searching for lost personal records.
Fisher said that Bastrop County's Lost Pines forest doesn't look like it used to, and the new seeds the county will plant this winter won't mature for many years to come. But someday, the wildfire's damage will no longer be visible, he said, and the archive will ensure that the fire is not forgotten.
"My grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even beyond need to have a place where they can see what the hell was this big fire that Papa kept talking about," Fisher said. "It may sound a little bit personal, but it is. (The archive is) not just for generations of my family, but it's for everyone here."