published in the Sun November 4, 2012
On September 4, 2011, Charlie and Carol Jones were relaxing at their hilltop cabin near Bastrop. Charlie had just talked to the sheriff about some small fires in the area, but had been reassured that the fires were under control. It was a windy day, and a door blew open, so Carol got up to close it. She came back and told Charlie that she smelled smoke. They both went out to look around and noticed burning embers blowing across the deck. A massive cloud of smoke was roiling up the side of the hill. Carol threw the dogs in the truck and Charlie grabbed his guns, the computer, and a box of family photos. Hightailing down the hill toward the main road, Carol remembered their neighbor Jess, who was out of town, so she called to tell him what was happening. Jess is lucky to have a friend like Carol, because he had not left town after all. He was holed up in his computer room, unaware that his home was about to be incinerated. By the time Carol and Charlie reached the road, five minutes after they first smelled smoke, the entire hill was an inferno. They stopped to take pictures, because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
A few days later, when the Joneses were allowed to go back home, they still had hopes that the cabin might have been spared. But when they reached what had been their home, Charlie said, “It was like the top of a volcano.” The ground was still smoking. Not a single tree was left unburned. The cabin was nothing but ash; even the metal sleigh bed was twisted like a pretzel by the heat. The only trace of their previous life was a wind chime tinkling in the breeze, and a large iron sugar pot in the yard that was home to a collection of goldfish. Amazingly, the goldfish were still alive.
Thirteen months after the historic fire, the hill is covered with yellow flowers, and a few green shoots are emerging from blackened oak stumps. Charred pine trunks stud the landscape. Charlie and Carol are temporarily staying in a nearby RV park, but today they are the center of a small energetic crowd on top of the hill. The Jones’s new straw bale home is being built by a very unorthodox construction company: Clay, Sand, and Straw, owned by Austin architect Kindra Welch and her husband, John Curry. The workers will be living on site until the house is finished. A tent city occupies what was once the front yard. Outdoor showers and composting toilets are hammered together out of scrap lumber. Under a tarp, a gypsy kitchen provides three meals a day. John is chief cook and bison potato stew is a specialty.
The new house has been framed and roofed, and volunteers (who paid for the privilege of learning straw bale construction) are helping the crew install the large bales that will insulate the walls. Kindra, her hair tied back under a blue bandanna, is instructing the volunteers how to fit and secure the bales. After all the bales are in place, the walls will be plastered inside and out, creating a beautiful, cool, and fire-resistant wall. No drywall required, no siding. John is supervising volunteers (when he is not cooking for them) and goes everywhere with a small boy peacefully strapped to Daddy’s back.
Kindra Welch installs a straw bale
Kindra got her degree in architecture from Rice University, and was comfortably installed in a fancy architecture company in New Jersey, earning the big bucks. But Kindra was restless sitting at a computer for nine hours a day, and unhappy with the sort of buildings that her company was turning out. The goal was to build fast and cheap without concern for quality or durability. She wanted to build houses that people would actually want to live in. Chucking the six-figure salary, Kindra loaded her belongings into a truck, and headed for the west coast to learn to build with cob, an environmentally friendly mixture of clay, sand, and straw. After two years living out of the truck and learning natural building techniques, she came back to central Texas to share what she had learned.
Kindra’s dwellings are unique, stunningly beautiful, and energy efficient, so it is not surprising that she has developed a reputation. For Carol and Charlie’s new home, she has salvaged timbers from the burnt forest. Two branching trunks, still etched with char, arch over the entrance to the new front porch, a testament to new beginnings arising from devastation. Carol and Charlie lost almost everything in the fire, but they weren’t hurt, and some surprising good things have come out of the disaster. Although they miss the trees, they now have a stunning view in every direction. More significant, they have a new community of supportive friends. Charlie has only praise for the Clay, Sand, and Straw people. Just thinking about how much they have helped his family brings a tear to his eye. “You just won’t find a finer group of people.”
Charlie and Carol Jones