After the flames: Trinity County trying to recover after largest fire in ETX history

Billie Blair's home survived the Bearing Fire.
Billie Blair's home survived the Bearing Fire.

TRINITY COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - It was the largest fire in East Texas history.

"If the house burned, all of our possessions, everything I'd worked for was just about to go poof and there's nothing I can do about it," Groveton resident Billy Brister said.

"We've gone through hurricanes, we've gone through everything, but this was different, this was really, really different," Trevat resident Billie Blair said. "It's hard to wrap your mind around."

Many residents were in the line of fire.

A fire so hot it turned thousands of trees to matchsticks, forced people out of their homes, depleted firefighting resources and turned 22,000 acres into ashes.

"By and large, it killed every stick of timber in the fire," said Kent Evans with the National Forest and Grasslands in Texas. "It was so hot and so adverse. It's going to take a long time to recover."

The largest wildfire in East Texas history ignited in late June on Hwy 287 near the Polk and Trinity county line.

An overheated wheel bearing on a trailer sparked both the blaze and the fire's name.

Two homes were burned and 25 travel trailers on a hunting club.

The flames threatened communities near Apple Springs. Residents in Helmic and Trevat feared the worst.

"We got 20 minutes to get out," Blair said. "That's all we were given."

Blair was told her home off FM 2262 was gone.

Five hours later, she would be told firefighters saved her dream home.

"It's amazing and no, we won't recover, that emotion is going to be there for a long time, long time," Blair said.

About four months ago, Blair told us she quickly adopted an evacuation plan.

"I tease this...but I had three P's, three P's, pets, pictures, and panties," Blair said. "That's all I had when I evacuated."

That plan is still in place. The memories of the fire are too close to let go.

"Everything in the house I have in my little plastic carry-on so all we have to do is put the dogs and my little suitcase in the car, but yeah, I haven't even unpacked that," Blair explained. "I have not reached the point to where I can go in there and say I'm going to have this ready."

The fire came right up to her fence. Her home was spared.

"It's amazing how God just takes and cupped his hand over this little house and said we're going to burn the land, but we're going to leave your house there," Blair said.

She's not the only one claiming a miracle. Neighbors in her community say a divine intervention saved them.

"He was watching over us," Brister said. "You could say that for a fact. He's definitely watching over us. God is there."

After fighting the blaze for weeks, the Texas Forest Service had exhausted all their resources. Volunteer fire departments had drained their supplies.

"We were pretty running low on funds, so and when people started donating, they helped us tremendous," said Apple Springs Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brett Selman.

"It was hectic, you know," Apple Springs Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Jarrod Meshell. "We were all over the county, there for awhile. I know we worked 24-hour shifts most of the time, pulled 48-hour shifts. It was real tiring."

With a combined 30 years of experience, the two men said they had never seen a fire move quite like the bearing.

"The winds were blowing different directions, so it was just basically spreading so far apart so you just couldn't control the flanks on the fire at all," Selman said.

"It was hot and very tiring," Meshell said. "You didn't have time to really think a lot. I mean you really had to be on your toes to get the job done out there and like I said we were from one part of the county to the other just constantly."

It's been nearly five months since Centerville ISD in Trinity County was turned into the command post for the Bearing Wildfire. Since then, the county said they're asking for government funding to be reimbursed for some of the money they spent organizing the relief effort on the fire.

"I can hope we would get something and with economic times the way they are with the federal government and the state government both of them are strapped for funds, but we're hoping we'll get a little bit," Trinity County Judge Doug Page said.

The county is returning to normal, other than the occasional log truck that serves as a reminder of the nearly 30 million cubic feet of timber ravaged by the fire.

"You still see a few burnt, loads of burnt logs coming through town every now and then, but as far as the initial event of getting the logs to the mills, at one time they were hauling thousands of logs of loads out of there daily," Page said. "They've got the majority of that out of there now."

About $18 million worth of timber was destroyed in the fire.

Loggers worked around the clock to salvage what they could. The roads were evidence of that work. Many county roads were in shambles after big rigs made dozens of trips hauling timber to the mills.

"I think they've pretty much stopped, they've got a couple of weeks left, well you can hear them now still cutting, maybe that will be the end of it," Brister said.

The majority of the timber has now been salvaged, but now there's new hurdles to overcome.

"We've got a lot of challenges here to try to restore a forest here and a very productive forest," U.S. Forest Service Fire Ecologist Ike McWhorter said. "We also have a great opportunity and that is to restore the native long-leaf pine ecosystem."

On the 600 acres of charred national forest land, they'll begin planting longleaf pines, a pine species that are less susceptible to fire. Foresters are hoping private landowners agree to do the same.

"It may be a short-term inconvenience, but in the long-run, their property, their houses are going to be safer in the future," Assistant Fire Management Officer on Davy Crockett National Forest Chet Dieringer said.

For now many residents say they're just thankful to have a place to call home.

"The green is coming back," Blair said. "We can see life coming back. My dad always told me, it's not the knocking down that gets you, it's the getting back up and our community is getting back up."

While they're getting back up, the memories are still fresh.

"I lit a candle and smelled the smoke and went over and had to blow it out," Blair said. "I can't stand it. We all get nervous. We really do."

The 22,000 blackened acres are still the talk of the town, but the fire's mark runs deeper than the scarred land. It's engrained in the minds of those who survived.

©2011 KTRE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.