Recovering from a Wildfire Catastrophe

By Mark Hanna | August 22, 2012

Gary Sweeny still gets choked up when thinking of all of his family and friends who helped him recover from the Bastrop, Texas, wildfire that destroyed his home of 35 years. The retired school teacher and his wife who still teaches have already rebuilt and moved into their new home.

On Labor Day weekend one year ago, the Sweeny’s neighbors said they were getting out of here. Knowing that his neighbor’s home was up for sale, Sweeny figured the neighbors had sold their home and were moving. But he soon realized that a fast moving forest fire was the cause of his neighbor’s departure. Living at the end of a private dirt road with one way in and one way out meant the Sweenys had better move quickly.

Gary and Gina Sweeny grabbed their dog and a few pillows and took off in separate vehicles toward Smithville where Gina taught school. They could see and smell smoke but they had no idea how close the fire actually was to their home. During the next 24 hours the Sweenys watched for newscasts that would explain what neighborhoods had been destroyed, but it was still too early to get accurate information on what was burning.

On day two of the fire Gary decided to return home if he could. Taking back roads and not stopped by firefighters, Gary made it back home and cleaned out his freezer thinking they’ll be back again soon. He returned to his wife in Smithville and heard the news that the fire had grown larger and was now moving closer toward their home. For the next few days the Sweenys along with hundreds of other families had to wait for the fires to die down before they could find out if their homes had been spared.

Almost a week after the costliest wildfire in Texas history began, the Sweeneys saw video of their neighborhood and their home had been reduced to ashes.

With the help of family and friends Gary had built his home and recently placed a heavy duty metal roof on his house that he is still paying for. His work truck of 15 years that was parked out front received only minor damage despite having burnt pine needles in the bed and underneath. His basketball goal and net were untouched. A metal carport was still standing, but everything else was reduced to rubble.

The next two months for the Sweenys was difficult because they had no permanent place to call home. During this time home was with his brother-in-law, a fifth-wheel trailer, a ranch house without air conditioning and finally a rent home.

Shortly after the fire, the Sweeny’s insurer, State Farm, offered the family additional living expenses that they said they didn’t need at first. Gary said their insurance adjuster offered them everything they needed, was easy to deal with and listened to their concerns.

The Sweenys had a very hard time determining what they lost in the fire in order to receive a check for their destroyed personal possessions. “I thought this would be easy just going room by room and remembering what we had,” said Sweeny. “In my mind I went through our laundry room and then onto my work room where I kept all my tools and my mind suddenly went blank. The trauma of the fire was just too much.”

With the help of his adjuster, Gary was asked to think of just the big appliances in his home and he eventually reached his coverage limit.

Gary and Gina have been trying to restore their five acres by removing charred pine trees and planting Bermuda grass. They have a new driveway and storage building and Gary has a new set of tools that came from a good friend who recently passed away.

“It’s going to be ugly here for a long time, but we now have a really nice, pretty house,” said Gary.

Hanna is the manager of public relations and membership for the Insurance Council of Texas.

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