BASTROP, Texas --
One month after the largest wildfire ever in Texas roared in Bastrop County, members of a small volunteer fire department are reflecting on their amazing story of courage and heart.
"When I initially saw the clouded horizon was not clouds but smoke, I knew this was going to be bad," volunteer firefighter Mizzy Zdroj said. "And we were going to have to face it."
"The pine trees would just ignite so fast and explode," volunteer firefighter John Banning said. "It sounded like a war zone."
Zdroj and Banning are members of the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department. The department sits between Bastrop and Smithville and was right in the middle of the growing wildfire. When the fire began, Zdroj, Banning and the other 22 volunteer firefighters at the department worked the front lines of the wildfire. They all stepped up to face the danger.
"I walked out of the house with nothing but my bunker gear on," Zdroj said.
Just battling the fire was tough enough. Strong winds, rough terrain and two fires, one after the other, made slowing the blaze almost impossible.
Banning said he barely escaped after he and a fellow firefighter became trapped while they tried to evacuate a home.
"We got trapped in by the smoke, and we could not see to get out, " Banning said. "It's a feeling I don't ever want to go through again."
Zdroj quickly knew this was the "big one."
"You hear the fire roaring and it pulls the oxygen away from you," Zdroj said while choking back tears. "That's the moment I thought, 'I hope I never see something like this again.'"
Like hundreds of other volunteer firefighters, the courage showed by the Heart of the Pines volunteers saved homes and lives and helped slow the fire. But it's what happened next that showed this small fire department's big heart.
As Zdroj and her colleagues fought the fire, it was destroying their own homes. She got the bad news from the department's chief.
"I looked at him and said, 'What about my house?'" Zdroj recalled. "He couldn't even look at me. He said, 'I'm sorry.' It was gone."
Zdroj and her husband lost their dream house in the woods off Cottletown Road. It left her family, including 8-year-old twin boys, without a home. Zdroj wasn't alone. Half of the department's volunteer firefighters lost their homes in the wildfire. Nothing but ashes and memories remain along many of the rural roads the firefighters called home.
As the firefighters learned of their losses, the roaring fire still raged on. So, Zdroj and all of the other volunteers kept working day after day to stop it.
"People knew their houses were gone but they continued to show up to the station," said Banning, whose home was not damaged. "They continued to serve their community. They all stepped up well beyond the call of duty."
"I didn't want anybody going through this," Zdroj said as she sat in front of her destroyed home. "It's in my blood. I was just going to do it. My house was already gone. There was not anything I could do about it. I would much rather do that than sit around feeling sorry for myself."
The damage marks the charred forest throughout Bastrop County. Cars, homes and even the department's own fire trucks now litter the rural neighborhoods. Despite the losses, the fire threat continues here and the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department remains ready to serve.
"You know what, if it happens again, I'll be out there again," said Zdroj.
The Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department operates with a $24,000 a year budget. Like many volunteer fire departments, it's forced to work with outdated, substandard equipment.
You can make a donation to department by sending a check to:
Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department
PO Box 98
Smithville, Texas 78957
Caring Friends, Inc., in Houston is also collecting donations for Heart of the Pines and the firefighters. All of the donations go to the cause. You can mail checks to:
Caring Friends, Inc.
4024 Lanark Lane
Houston, Texas 77025