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Betty Dunkerley's near-miss wildfire

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

On Monday, Sept. 5, former Austin City Council Member Betty Dunkerley learned that her Bastrop home had burned to the ground.

Then, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, something strange happened, not for the last time.

"Early that morning, our priest's husband went into the neighborhood," Dunkerley says. "(He) told me my house was still standing."

Her relief was short-lived.

"At about 10:30 or 11 a.m., a neighbor called," Dunkerley says. "(He) said our street and our houses were burning."

By midafternoon, her fortunes reversed again when Dunkerley spied her address in the Tahitian Village subdivision listed on a website as still standing.

After 5 p.m. that same Tuesday, an official map showed the area where she lived as most likely destroyed.

Her roller-coaster ride was not over yet. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, whose officers helped out with the disaster response, checked on the residence.

"On Wednesday afternoon, he drove me by to see the house from the outside," Dunkerley says. Miraculously, the three-bedroom, ranch house with extensive woodwork wrapped around the backyard patio and even the beds of flowers and vegetables were virtually untouched.

Across the street, a neighbor's house was reduced to rubble. Across her backyard, all was gone, razed by the time we recently visited.

Dunkerley's longtime friends, former City of Austin purchasing director Sue Brubaker and her husband, retired businessman Stewart Brubaker, joined us examining the general devastation, along with Dunkerley's former aide, Suzie Harriman, and her husband, retired classical music writer Randy Harriman.

"It was like a tornado," says Stewart Brubaker, who lives nearby. "It just bounced right over Betty's house."

The Brubakers' house also survived.

Dunkerley points out where a wooden fence once stood, where the wildfire lapped up next to the patio, where a wooden tub planter burned at the base, yet its brilliant yellow hibiscus blooms flourished.

The whole near-miss aspect of Dunkerley's story was tempered by the losses around her. As we inspect mile after mile of pines, poking up like used matchsticks, we note subdivisions wiped out or with a lonely structure still standing. Here, a house is gone, but its garage is untouched. There, open space and meadow protects a cluster of untouched homes.

Along the back roads, a blanket of gray ash looks like forlorn snow.

Over an excellent meal at the family-style Las Cocinas Mexican Restaurant on Texas 95, we hear about some of the wildfire's saving graces. How the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and the Austin Community Foundation responded quickly and expertly to the disaster. How local churches banded together to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for those who must replace everything. (Dunkerley and the Brubakers are heavily involved with Calvary Episcopal, whose rector, the Rev. Lisa Hines,lost her home, and yet spent the days after the wildfires ministering to her congregants as they dealt with the emotional and spiritual aftermath.)

Financial whiz Dunkerley, who stays active consulting on Austin's proposed medical school project, just smiles and raises her eyebrows when she takes another look at her incongruously serene home.

"It must have been a guardian angel," she says. "And some wet St. Augustine grass."

Texans worship their cattle. Even fake ones.

Last week at ACL Live, bidders spent $1.58 million for 40 decorated cow statues. The money goes to the foundation that funds Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas. (At the auction, late-night host Jay Leno sold the necktie he was wearing for $5,000.)

Two bovines from the Cow Parade, scattered around the city in public places since July, went for a record $150,000 each. Luci Baines Johnson bid that high-dollar amount for the Vince Young Champion cow that was covered with 8,000 copper pennies. Another $150,000 earner, called "Cowch," was a seated cow with an embedded cowhide sofa.

A Cow Parade spokesman said the previous record holder among statues, decorated by local artists, auctioned in dozens of other cities was $146,000 in Dublin, Ireland. It was covered with Waterford crystal.

Austin did it with pennies and cowhide.

mbarnes@statesman.com