It was a sudden firestorm that left two people dead, some 1,700 homes burned to the ground and 33,000 acres of the Lost Pines area just east of Austin, Texas, destroyed. The Labor Day weekend wildfire of 2011 had followed a long stretch of 100-plus-degree temperatures that parched Central Texas. As the long weekend approached, Tropical Storm Lee was churning westward over the Gulf of Mexico promising saving rains. But the storm brought no moisture, only strong winds that whipped power lines and set off sparks, igniting a blaze that ripped through the drought-stricken forests.
Over three blistering days, three separate forest fires merged to engulf the area. It would take firefighters a month to quell the flames completely. It would take residents years to recover — some are still waiting to move into rebuilt homes. But while physical and psychological scars remain, now thanks to volunteers and a massive reforestation project, there is hope that the Lost Pines will be renewed.
Called the Lost Pines because of their isolation, the loblolly pines that blanket this area grow about 100 miles apart from their East Texas cousins. They have adapted over the years to the drier conditions found in Central Texas — they’re generally a little shorter than the loblolly pines found in the Southeastern United States, their needles a little waxier and their trunks not as straight. For Austin-area residents, they are a beacon. On the drive back from Houston or from a woodsy weekend in a Bastrop State Park cabin, the familiar site of the pines lining the hilly roadside just to the east of Austin lets you know you’re almost home.
Many people who lost their homes in the 2011 fire lived or worked in Austin. Nearly 700 of the victims were low-income residents who were left homeless. “It’s our neighbors,” says Nina Hawkins, communications director for TreeFolks, an Austin nonprofit that has long been committed to enhancing urban forests with annual free-sapling giveaways.
The simple fact of seeing neighbors in need prompted TreeFolks to play a key role in reforesting the area. After the fire, the Texas A&M Forest Service pledged a five-year plan to plant trees, including 6,600 acres of state parkland that had been consumed by the blaze. TreeFolks then stepped in, armed with donations and grants from the Alcoa Foundation and the American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership for Trees, to help further replant privately owned land. Since many landowners could barely afford to rebuild their homes, it was unlikely that they could pay to plant new trees.
The TreeFolks project, which aims to plant 1.1 million trees in five years, has just completed its second year. In Central Texas, tree-planting season runs from October to March, Hawkins points out, and this year TreeFolks embedded nearly 600,000 seedlings on private land in the devastated area. Over the winter, hundreds of volunteers of all ages, working with TreeFolks and the park reforestation program, got down on their hands and knees to press the tiny seedlings into the charred soil.
The seedlings are being grown at several nurseries in the timber-growing areas of Georgia, Louisiana and Oklahoma, and at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Without these contributions, it is unlikely that the area could be revived, according to Dan Pacatte, TreeFolks’ reforestation coordinator. The few trees that survived the fire would not have provided enough seed stock to replant the area. “They talk about a crown fire, or a ground fire,” says Pacatte, “but this was both. It was like a blowtorch. The fire was so hot, it burned up the seed source.” The ubiquitous pine cones that dot the forest floor were wiped out.
“We are shooting for a 50 percent survival rate,” Pacatte says, noting that drought still has a stranglehold on parts of Texas and that spring rains are needed. “Last year we had about a 40 percent survival, but we are happy with that.”
It will take 20 to 30 years for the trees to reach maturity, but this won’t be the first time the Lost Pines have been resuscitated. In the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps came in to establish Bastrop State Park, now a popular retreat for Austinites, the forest had already been suffering, likely thinned by lumber harvesting. A decade later, during World War II, more trees were cut down to build the U.S. Army training base, Camp Swift, nearby. It would take several decades for the forest to recover from the impact of that harvesting.
Then in the 1950s, a bit of circuitous serendipity: Texas lumber company executives persuaded Allan Shivers, who was then governor, to fund a nursery and tree-breeding program to support the state’s timber industry. The Lost Pines trees, valued for their drought tolerance, were eyed as a potential boost to the industry and so seeds were collected, and an East Texas nursery began to grow the seedlings. The nursery survived until 2008, but by then demand for the Lost Pines trees had diminished — lumber companies preferred the taller, straight-trunked loblolly pines.
When the nursery closed, a cache of some 1,000 pounds of Lost Pines seeds was left. Somehow, those seeds found their way into an industrial freezer 200 miles away in Lufkin, Texas. They were tentatively slated by the Forest Service to be discarded in a landfill by September 2011 — but then came the Labor Day fire. These are the precious seeds now being used to reforest the scorched lands surrounding Austin.
Local legend says the Lost Pines were originally planted by Native Americans who moved into the area from the Piney Woods of East Texas, bringing with them the seeds of loblolly pines. Scientists say the pines date back nearly 20,000 years to the Pleistocene era. Today, whether inspired by legend, scientific wonder or by the sheer spirit of endurance of the trees themselves, hundreds of volunteers are committed to restoring the Lost Pines to a familiar and favorite place.