Janice and Doug Todd stand in the remains of their Scenic Brook home, which was burned from the inside out from last year’s Oak Hill fire.
Story and Photos by Joanne Foote
After a year of legal wrangling, the place Janice and Doug Todd called home for more than 30 years is now legally theirs. The Todd’s lost their home a year ago to the Oak Hill fire, but with no homeowner’s insurance and no clear title to their home, they have been unable to rebuild.
The remnants of their house, which sits boarded up on Scenic Brook Drive, was one of ten homes destroyed and among dozens that were damaged in the fire that ravaged the Scenic Brook and South Windmill Run neighborhoods on April 17, 2011.
The journey, which began a year ago, has been a long one, with many roadblocks along the way. The fly in the ointment preventing the Todd’s from rebuilding has been obtaining a clear title to their home.
“We had a wrap-around mortgage on our home and made payments to the owner for 30 years. However, the title was never changed and then the original owner died. The executor of the will also never followed through and has also since died,” explained Doug. So the Todd’s turned their case over to an attorney.
“We started the process with a lawyer in Houston, but we changed to a few different local attorneys, who agreed to take on our case pro bono. It was wonderful what all they did for us. Fortunately, we had all the tax statements, receipts and letters and correspondence from the original owner that did not get damaged in the fire. We handed it over to our lawyers,” Janice said. “On March 6, we had our hearing before the judge, and one year to the date from the fire, we got the call that the case was ruled in our favor and that the house was legally ours.”
“The wheels of justice are slow, but we prevailed,” Doug added.
The memories of that fateful day one year ago are still fresh, as Janice and Doug recall the day of the fire. “I had just gotten home from Abilene, out in west Texas, around 1:00 p.m. after helping my mother for several days, and was exhausted,” said Janice, as she recalled the day of the fire. “At 2:00 p.m. exactly, I heard sirens and I went outside. I thought there was a wreck at first, but you could see smoke everywhere and people were pointing up the hill. I could see flames over the houses. Seeing all that smoke and helicopters and planes dropping water that day was so scary,” recounted Janice, as she sat in the grass, pulling weeds in the yard of her burned-out home.
“There was a 100-foot wall of flames up the hill from our house, several blocks away,” described 69-year old Doug Todd. “I got the hose and wet the back of my house and put out a fire in the creek, which is behind our fence line. I was coming around the front of the house to hose it down, but the police wouldn’t let me and I had to evacuate. Sometimes I wonder if I had been able to hose down the front of the house, that maybe it could have been saved,” added Doug.
“After the police had evacuated all of us to the end of the street near Highway 71, I called my son, Darren. He didn’t tell me this at the time,” said Doug, “but he had gotten on the computer and found a satellite view of the fire and was able to see that our house had caught on fire. He booked a flight from Arizona to come in to Austin and help.
“When we were finally allowed to come back into the neighborhood, we walked up here. It took us a while to walk the mile or so, with my oxygen tank. When we got to our house, my heart went through my feet,” said Doug, adding, “I was mentally and physically sick at the sight of our home.”
“I was in total horror and disbelief. You just can’t imagine something like this happening to your own neighborhood, much less to your own house,” said Janice, 67.
It was determined that stray embers carried by the fierce winds that day was the cause of the fire at the Todd’s home. “Embers dropped into the gutter over the front porch, igniting the plastic gutter guard. The fire went up under the metal roof, and caught everything in the attic on fire,” explained Doug. One look at the house and it’s easy to see where the fire began and how it burned. “The fire went up inside, filling the whole house with smoke, but the metal roof was a barrier that kept the fire inside the house,” explained Doug. “Now, I feel like I would have been safer with a shingle roof,” he added.
Doug and Janice have been married 46 years. They both grew up in west Texas and met while in college in Abilene. With his tall, broad build, Doug played football for Hardin-Simmons University. In the early 1960’s when Doug and Janice were dating, they were in a car accident which landed them both in the hospital with significant injuries. A crushed windpipe and shattered collar bone were just some of many injuries Doug sustained. Janice had a severe concussion and fractured jaw. Years later, residual problems from that accident caught up with Doug, and he has to use an oxygen tank wherever he goes. Luckily, the one he uses is small enough to be carried in a backpack.
Acts of kindness both large and small have flowed into the Todds’ lives in the face of this latest adversity, just one of many that has cropped up in their lives through the years. Robin Collins, who lives in the Oak Hill area, came to see the fires at the urging of her roommate. “The day of the fire, my roommate wanted to come over to the area to see what was happening. We just happened to park in front of the Todds’ house. Doug was sitting outside, obviously devastated. I saw Janice too, and they were just lost. We went home, and then I saw the Todds’ on the news and I told my roommate, ‘I’m going back to do what we need to do,’” said Collins. “There were all kinds of volunteers, but we got organized,” she added.
“Robin has wings hidden under that shirt,” said Janice. “She is one of many angels that have helped us. She came back and helped with the clean up. Easter was a week after the fire, and she brought a spread for us and for all the volunteers. She brought a ham and the whole works. It was truly a blessing I will never forget.” Collins was among many volunteers who came and helped sort through and pack up all the things that were salvageable.
Not only did the fire bring changes to the Todds’ world, but it also changed Collins, who had worked in the mortgage business for close to 20 years. “The fires and this whole experience were life changing for me. I worked for years in the mortgage business. Last year I quit. I had always wanted to open a restaurant, so I just took the plunge,” said Collins, who owns Robin’s 290 Grill on Highway 290. Collins had been doing catering on the side for a number of years, and after the fire, she decided to try her hand at running her own restaurant.
Doug knows his way around basic maintenance and house structure, having worked at Home Depot for the last 18 years, most recently at the Bee Caves location. “I’m a Customer Order Specialist. I chase material that is special ordered, and all the steps that are involved for the customer, vendors, employees and management,” he explained.
Volunteers, including some from Home Depot, were a big help with the cleanup, the Todds said. Home Depot also donated materials, including trash bags, masks, shovels, brooms, water, as well as manpower. The volunteers stripped all the damaged sheetrock and insulation down to the wood framework, which is all that is left to define the rooms. “The roof has some damage, some of the framework and trusses might be saved, but we will likely have to replace the roof and decking with new plywood and shingles. The 25-year shingles will probably outlast me. And we need to run all new electrical wire as well,” said Doug.
Collins was just one of the angels that surfaced in the Todds’ life. “A week or so after the fire, the nicest man, Pat Benner, pulled up in front of the house. We were introduced, and after talking he told us he had a two bedroom house nearby that he had been preparing to put on the market,” said Janice. Prior to that time the Todd’s were staying in hotels.
“The only way to say it is it was a God thing,” said Benner, an area insurance agent and broker. “A fellow that was helping me with painting the house the Todds are now living in, happened to be working on a house in the area where the fires were. He went to the Red Cross table to see how he could help and was directed to the Todds. I was taking this fellow home and he said to me, ‘Pat, you’ve got to meet these people, they are good people.’ So I was introduced to Doug and Janice. It crossed my mind that I had this little house I was finishing up. I asked them where they planned to live and they weren’t sure, but they needed to be close to Austin due to Doug’s job and his doctors. I told them to come by and take a look at this house I had and if it was something they could use, they were welcome to stay there,” said Benner. The house was formerly one of his offices, which he was getting ready to turn into a rental.
“It’s a two way street. They pay the utilities and they have kept the place up very nicely. They are wonderful people, and have done a service for me as well, because leaving a property vacant deteriorates the place very quickly. This has been good for both of us, and they can stay there until their house is ready to move back in,” Brenner added.
“We treat it like it was ours,” Doug said. “He is letting us live there rent free, and we feel it is our duty to take care of it. Janice put in some new flooring; we replaced the garbage disposal and the outside air conditioning unit. Our son, Darren, works with Sonic, helping with the refrigeration the company needs. He helped us get a wholesale price on the air conditioner and get it installed. It was the right thing to do. I didn’t have the heart to call Pat and have him replace it. He has been so good to us,” said Doug.
The Todds stop by their house twice each day to check on it and to feed their cats, which still live there. Some neighbors having been coming by to help scrape up the tile floors, which are one of the last things that need to be removed. “We have hired this young man, Eddie, across the street and he comes in each day and works getting this tile up. He is such an exemplary young man,” said Janice, sweeping up the damaged linoleum squares, which she had installed herself.
Janice’s cats, Pumpkin, Honey, Tinker and Trina, all ran off during the fire. “Luckily we have pet doors so they could get out. Thankfully, they showed up about four days after the fire, but they seem more skittish now. They were very traumatized—everything’s different for them too.”
Like any home, the house is full of memories. The Todds moved to this house with their children, daughter Christi and son Darren, in the 1970s. However, six years ago they lost their daughter to a disease. “Our daughter, Christi, passed away. We lost her to an eating disorder. She was 32 years old.” The Todds’ house also flooded during the 1981 Memorial Day Flood. “We didn’t flood from the creek behind our house though. We flooded from the street,” said Doug. The house also holds many good memories for the Todds as well, and they just want to get back home.
Neighbors keep a watchful eye on the house as well. Adding insult to injury, the Todds’ home was looted shortly after the fire. “We were clearing out all the debris and had things we had hoped to reuse sitting in the garage, including our bathtubs, pedestal sinks, our kitchen appliances, literally, everything including the kitchen sink. I just found out today that had the looters not come in and stole my meter and breaker boxes, I would have been grandfathered in and possibly might not have had to rewire everything. Now it looks like that will have to be replaced as well,” said Doug.
“It’s sad to think that you have that element that wants to thrive off of the adversity of others. Taking without asking is stealing, plain and simple,” said Doug. “Even though the house wasn’t boarded up yet, it wasn’t theirs to steal.”
Broom in hand, and standing in what is now just a shell of her kitchen and dining area, Janice described what her kitchen looked like just before the fire. “This is the world’s tiniest kitchen. I used to imagine it being a little bigger, but now I don’t care. I just want a kitchen of my own. It had a nice view, overlooking the creek. Shortly before the fire, I had renovated it in a Tuscan theme. We put up new wallpaper, hung new curtains and added new pulls on the cabinets, and put in new flooring. I was so pleased with it,” she said, even though cooking is not one of her favorite things.
With the legal woes behind them, Doug and Janice allow themselves to dream a little bit about the future rebuilding process. “We hope to combine the master bedroom with a smaller bedroom nearby. All the bedrooms were itty-bitty and we don’t need four bedrooms anymore, so if we combine our bedroom with this other small bedroom, our room will be a little bigger, maybe for a sitting area,” said Doug, pointing out the floor plan as he walked through the house. “I know enough to ask for help when I need it. Right now, I feel a bit like a goose in a hurricane, not knowing which way to flap my wings.”
The Todds have set aside funds, some of which came from monies that were raised and distributed through the Oak Hill Wildfire Relief Fund. Doug’s brother, who lives in Houston, set up a trust fund for friends and family to donate to as well. Doug said, “We have some money in our savings, as well as FEMA funds which we received, and money from the Oak Hill Wildfire Relief Committee, but we will still be short when we rebuild, because we need all kinds of materials and labor.”
“We just never dreamed something like this could happen,” Janice said. “It scares you to death. It is amazing how the fire just randomly picked out houses. But we have been reminded how wonderful people can be, like Robin and Pat and the attorneys and all the volunteers. The best in people comes out in a disaster like this. When we were frantically pulling stuff out of the house, people would randomly drive up and hand us a $20 HEB gift card, and it helped a lot. We are going to get through it with God’s help and all these wonderful people. We will get back on our feet,” stated Janice.
“One man who drove up gave us a $200 gift card to McDonalds,” added Janice, whose secret love is McDonald’s breakfast. “We like to eat there every morning. I don’t cook breakfast. I have a breakfast burrito, Doug has a scrambled egg and a sausage biscuit.”
“I believe there are no coincidences in life,” said Benner. “It felt right. I try everyday to give something back. It is something I learned a long time ago. It goes full circle and it would be pretty condemning if we didn’t return favors to those in need. Doug and Janice are wonderful people with a good attitude. I know they will get through this, even though it has been tough. If you look, there can be positive things even in overwhelmingly negative situations,” Brenner added.
Gary Hunt, co-chair of the Oak Hill Wildfire Relief Committee, said the volunteers who have been working on the Henric home are close to being finished. “We are so close, I think she will probably be in her house in the next two weeks,” he said, referring to Lily Henric, who lives just a few houses away from the Todds and who also lost her home. “Most of our volunteers in the skilled areas are completing the Henric home. I know we all need a break, but having said that, there are some of us who will do whatever we can to insure the Todds’ house goes forward. I just received a call from Pastor Randy Phillips of PromiseLand West Church, where the Todd’s are members. He assured me that the Todds will be supported through their church community and for that we are very grateful,” said Hunt.
At this point, the Todds are just hoping there are still some folks out in the community that will help them rebuild. “We are just hoping that people still want to help. One month, two months after the fire we had people coming up offering help, and it was so wonderful, but we couldn’t do anything as far as rebuilding is concerned back then. We know so much has happened with all the fires last year and people are burned out and fatigued. But we hope there are still some people who are willing to help us now that we can move forward,” said Janice. “My hope and dream is just to come back home. We want to come back home so badly. This is home, and we have been gone for over a year.”
Doug chimed in, “I can never thank those that have helped us enough. All I can do from here on out is pay it forward in anyway I can.”
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