Hope Among the Ashes
Yesterday I returned from a disaster response trip to Bastrop, Texas, a town of approximately 7,000 people, where recent wildfires have destroyed entire neighborhoods. I was the team leader of a group of seven who came to help homeowners sort through the ashes of their homes.
The disaster was so extensive that a Presidential Disaster Declaration has been received for Bastrop County. Since Sunday, September 4, 2011, a total of 1,814 homes have been destroyed by wildfires. While we were there, three new fires broke out. Our team heard sirens and saw helicopters flying overhead, hauling buckets of water. So it isn’t over yet.
Our Early Response team was comprised of people from all different churches in the North Texas Conference. None of them knew each other before we left, but they’d all taken an UMCOR Basic Early Response Team class, had badges, and were able to go with just a few days’ notice. We had four men and three women. The main thing they shared in common was the desire to serve others—and to be a Christian presence.
When we arrived, we received a debriefing from our UMVIM field coordinator, Larry Etter. Larry described our task as “doing funerals for houses.” Most of the homeowners, who are required to be present with the team, just want to find something they can keep as a reminder of their previous lives. Usually, they hope to recover jewelry or other precious items.
Unfortunately, our team didn’t find a whole lot that survived the extreme heat of the fires. Using mesh screens, we dumped buckets of ashes and sifted through them. At one house, we found the Navy dog tags that belonged to the father of the homeowner. Periodically we’d unearth ceramic items that survived completely intact. It was almost like doing an archeology dig, with very traumatized people directing our efforts.
On our first day, my team was joined by Vickie Huffman from San Antonio and Sean Raybuck from Wimberley, TX. They had taken a special UMCOR class in spiritual and emotional care last July, taught by UMCOR consultant Mary Gaudreau, who specializes in this training. Vickie and Sean’s purpose on the team was to act as listeners who would be especially sensitive to the tangled ball of emotions present in the fire survivors. However, my team soon discovered that others in the community were suffering as well.
One night our team was confronted by a firefighter who was a church member. He saw the lights on in the church where we were staying and thought we might be looters (which has been a problem in Bastrop.) Once he realized we weren’t looters, he sat down and visited with our team for a while. The firefighter was struggling with a massive sense of guilt because he’d been in a position where he had to decide which houses were saved, and which ones burned. He knew all of the people who lived in those homes.
One homeowner we were helping was angry because his auto insurance company was questioning whether his burned out shell of a van was “really totaled”— even after he’d sent them a picture. He also told us his children were so “afraid of the trees” that their family decided not to live in another wooded area. They were relocating to town.
At Cedar Creek United Methodist Church, Pastor Paul Harris said almost 30 families were burned out, “maybe 40 if you count the families in the preschool,” he said. Most of them are starting to disperse and Pastor Harris thinks they probably won’t come back. He suspects this is because of the unique natural area that these folks lived in, called Lost Pines. Central Texas doesn’t have a lot of pine trees, but there was one isolated pine forest, and that entire area burned. Since it won’t be a pine forest again in their lifetimes, many families will relocate somewhere else. This leaves the church struggling with so many families leaving. First United Methodist Church of Bastrop is in the same position.
Some families had only 15-minutes notice to grab what they could and get out the door. Our team wondered what we would have done if we’d been in that position. I commented that it would take me 15 minutes just to get my elderly dog in the car. Then we met a family who had been on vacation the day of the fire. They told us all of their pets had burned in the fire.
Despite all of this trauma, we also saw signs of hope. We saw a green shoot growing out of the ground where everything else was charred and black. We saw the community coming together to help each other out. First United Methodist Church of Bastrop was feeding people lunch each day. They welcomed our team — even though we were covered with grit and filth. I think our Christian presence there was a sign of hope as well — to the people of Bastrop.
It will be a long time before this town recovers from all that has happened. The drought (which caused all of this to begin with) continues. The fires aren’t even 100% contained. Yet I know from the grateful smiles directed my way and the hugs I received that we made a difference in the lives of those we served. I echo the sentiment we saw spray painted on the side of one burned out shell of a house: “How Great Is Our God.”
*Rev. Marji Bishir is North Texas Conference associate director of the Center for Missional Outreach.
The members of the North Texas Early Response Teams with whom she traveled to Bastrop are:
Rev. Marji Bishir, North Texas Conference Associate Director, Center for Missional Outreach
Pete Cotting, Vista Ridge UMC in Lewisville, TX
Michelle Barber, First United Methodist Church in Frisco, TX
Dick Stanley, First United Methodist Church of Sulphur Springs, TX
Jim Casten, First United Methodist Church of Carollton, TX
Susan Leddy, First United Methodist Church of Blossom, TX
Larry Partridge, First United Methodist Church of Mabank, TX