A decade after Steiner fires, local family shares

Varner Court neighbors who were victims of fire gathered on Labor Day weekend to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Steiner Ranch fires. Resident Norma Harais (far right next to husband TJ) shares in her own words what happened on Sept. 4, 2011 just before 4 p.m. when wildfire was moving fast toward her home.

Steiner Ranch families who lost their homes to wildfire on September 4, 2011 gathered a few weeks later to say “thank you” to the community for everyone’s help and support.

By NORMA HARAIS, Contributor 

On the day of the fires, our family had just gotten back from a soccer game. Our son, Carson, first noticed smoke across the canyon near 620 and called 911 but it had already been called in. We then met with our neighbors outside and, with ash starting to fall, decided it was best to gather some things in our car in case of evacuation measures.

We got out some things but the winds were incredible. After boxing four bunnies and getting our dog in the car, we told the kids to pack a small bag of clothes but I literally dropped my half-packed bag as we heard a policeman with a megaphone yell, “Get out now!” 

We ran out, leaving my purse, valuables, and, ironically, our emergency stash money behind — which we laugh about now. 

The Harais family gathers for their first family photo after fires with donated Fila clothes from Wild Basin Fitness.

Our son was only 15 but we threw him the truck keys and said, “Man up, you’re driving solo today.” Thankfully he had a friend with him, Steve Gerken, to brave the journey. 

TJ and I sandwiched them between our vehicles and we all headed to H-E-B where I discovered both of our kids were barefoot. So…H-E-B flip flops were our first purchase. 

H-E-B was the best! I’ll never forget their generosity as they brought out food and water for all the pets and people and fed everyone dinner. But backtracking a bit, it was on the way there when I had time to process and thought, “Wow, we actually might lose our home.” 

I called my mom and asked her to pray and started to tear up. Elise, our daughter then 13-years-old said, “It’s ok mama. We have never had anything really bad happen to us. We’ve helped others before so this time others will help us.” And she was never more right. 

We spent the first week with our dear friends, the Cloran family, in River Place. I’ll never forget going to the first of many Target runs that evening and not knowing where to start. I walked out with only toothbrushes and underwear for the whole family haha! — seemed like reasonable purchases at the time until we knew for sure when/if we could go home. 

A Christmas photo in 2012 of the Harais family in their new home, a year after rebuilding.

In the meantime, a video of our neighbor’s house burning and other photos from people who chose to stay, were circulating. It was rather sad that was how our daughter first found out the probability that ours was gone too. However, the next day when TJ drove to 620 to see if he could see our home with borrowed binoculars, it was then we knew for sure. What he saw was our old truck, that we were planning to sell soon, in the driveway, half burned and which typically wouldn’t be in view if our house was still standing. That night, there were tears and hugs. 

I had just lost my neighbor and best friend of 13 years to a 3-year battle of cancer barely four months prior. The reality of that loss, coupled with this one, and the daunting task of starting over seemed overwhelming. But the following days and weeks were filled with such tender love and care from friends and strangers alike as food, essentials and bags of clothes were consistently being left on our doorstep.

The first day we were allowed to come back is still so vivid, especially the smells. I remember walking down to our “home” — hand in hand — and witnessing what felt like a death. It was, in some sense. 

We finished building this home in 1994. It was our only home me and my husband had ever lived in together and our two young teenagers had ever known. It was nothing but 3 feet of ashes now, but it was “my ashes” and I wouldn’t leave until I found something special to leave with. 

My husband and I dug for quite some time and then he looked at me and said, “I think I found something worth keeping.” And he handed me my Bible. Perfectly burned scriptures in an oval…like an old camp project we used to mod podge on wood. Yes, that would certainly do.

A few friends and neighbors joined me in digging the next couple of days to find any other keepsakes. We found some burnt relics but not much worth keeping… until Elise’s stone was found which was out by our back patio fountain. She made it in elementary school and picked the saying “The most important things in life aren’t things.” It remains one of my most precious gifts as I know God’s hand was all over this. 

From the moment she sat in her little chair at school making it, ‘til it was eventually back in our hands when we needed it most — I believe God ordained it all. He always sustains us and knows what we need before we do. 

I remember five years ago, the fires sometimes seemed “like yesterday” but now after 10, it seems like a long time ago. We, and most of our neighbors, rebuilt. At first, rebuilding was challenging. Building a home is fun when you “want” to build — not so much when you “have” to build. We let the kids pick one thing they wanted in the new house that they didn’t have before and of course they picked a pool! But no regrets. That pool has provided lots of family/friend fun throughout the years. 

Our cul de sac has had a “fire party” every Labor Day weekend since the fires. It started as a time to reflect and remember, but now it’s just a fun meal we share together. Our neighbors have always been like family, but now we share a deeper bond and a very defining moment in time. 

I love our new home we’ve built on the same piece of land. Lots of new memories have been made here but I will never be “married” to my home or the things we’ve acquired since. Grief is a weird thing. For a long time I had a lot of guilt about mourning past possessions. I mean, we were all safe! Nobody died! But eventually  I realized it was the “memories” associated with the things that I was actually mourning… mostly family heirlooms, every vacation, birthday,

holiday family video, and all the homemade Christmas ornaments… but they are still a part of me and in my heart. Just like people we lose who are dear to us. Joy eventually comes back.

The life lessons and miracles surrounding this tragic event were many. There were new perspectives. Lives were changed. And if you ask any of the fire victims, I’m sure they would say for the better. Events like that challenge you. What are you choosing to see and focus on? What do you value most? What/who do you put your hope in when you realize you aren’t in control? 

With all the recent fires, floods and other tragic devastations right now throughout our country and world, my hope is that we all find a way to help as we were helped. Even if the most you can offer is prayer… because that is quite a great beginning. 

Elise Harais married neighbor Alex Lutz right before the pandemic in January 2020. L-R Alex and Elise Lutz, Carson, Norma and TJ Harais.