Many of us were shocked at the terrible fires, in early Sept 2011 that raced across the country side just east of Austin, Texas. During the daytime, when the winds were up, the fires moved at the speed of a man’s footsteps. Over 1500 homes were destroyed. Huge rural housing additions just outside of Bastrop went up in flames. Most people had about 6 minutes notice to get out. I was there only 3 days after people were allowed to return to their homes. This is my story of what I did, and my experiences while there.
Author’s Motivation and Purpose
My name is Jim Casten. I am a Christian and a practicing Methodist. Our denomination has a long history of helping those in need. We have a program of training volunteer workers to enter into disaster areas to help those affected. In the case of floods we are known to still be there two years after the flood. In this case our association of North Texas churches gathered together a team of 7 volunteers to be the first team to enter fire damaged homes in Bastrop, Texas to sift ashes. To enter these restricted areas each team member must have a picture badge, identifying them as a certified disaster relief volunteer. Each of us demonstrated our faith by extending the love of Jesus to those whose homes had been burned. Technically we were there to assist the homeowner in the sifting of ashes to find valuables and to enable them to release their emotional hold on their belongings.
Bastrop is just a few miles east of Austin and the neighborhoods that we served were just east of Bastrop. The country side is very hilly and full of pine trees. Each home sits on a lot that is several acres. Most homes had enough trees around them that the nearby neighbor could not be seen easily. The hills were tall and the trees were tall. It appeared to me that each home was uniquely different and beautiful. To get from the main highway to a home required a written guide to navigate through about 4 different streets. Each street contained its own hills and valleys. It seems that every home was hidden, and detailed instructions were necessary. Every home was automatically very private, unless the neighbors took the time to get to know each other.
Source of The Fire
During the last several years, rainfall was good. Growth in the brush under the thick trees was abundant. Each year brought new growth and last year’s old growth continued to stand. A heavy growth just provided more privacy. This year was a different year. Lack of rain was causing the undergrowth and trees to go into shutdown. Leaves and pine needles turned brown to conserve water. Undergrowth became a dead tinder box, just ready for a fire.
Rural fire control is provided by volunteer firemen. These guys work normal jobs, (probably in Austin) just like everyone else, except when called to a fire. These guys are your neighbors, protecting other neighbors. Three years ago, even these guys became alarmed at the growth of the underbrush. They tried a controlled burn just to see if they could eliminate some fuel. The fire started to burn out of control, until it was put out with the help of a lot of emergency calls to nearby fire departments.
Between neighbors and between fireman and neighbors there is no formal means of communication. The attraction of being remote and disconnected from your neighbors has its disadvantage.
Most neighbors had been aware that some fires existed in the region. The firemen were taking care of them and it was no big deal. One neighbor became aware of more immediate danger from an email. She went to the patio and because of the tall trees, looked up. Yes, there was a little smoke but it was no big deal. A few minutes later a demanding knock on her front door revealed that the fire was soon to cut off her path out of the housing addition. It was a concerned neighbor. Most all victims tell that they were only given 5 to 10 minutes of warning. One fellow grabbed two laptops and a PC. Most grabbed a couple of pictures and the animals in order to leave quickly. They grabbed the car keys, shoved it all in and raced from the neighborhood. Only when you are confronted with hundreds of other folks who are also displaced, do you realize the magnitude of the problem. They had no place to go for the night!
Post Fire Coordination
During the next two weeks, only firemen, water utility, electric utility and other workers were allowed into the neighborhoods. When I arrived on the 18th of September, most residents had only been allowed access for 2 or 3 days. During that two week period, people scattered to all corners of the county, Austin and other distant locations. I found that numerous relief stations had been set up along the main roads, and in Churches. While I was there, the biggest need was for diapers.
The area churches were the first to provide relief. They put signs out on the highway to announce accepting items for relief and the providing of relief. I was only in two churches, both Methodist, and both of them had all kinds of goods. Everything had to be sorted into sizes, and categories, so that the shopper can cruise the isles just like a regular store. Everything was free. Free meals were being provided by churches and others. On our first day sifting ashes, a church van pulled up and their youth handed out free sack lunches to anyone who wanted them. While fire victims ate lunches in the church, aid workers in special shirts were available to give out all kinds of information and to talk with them about the emotions being experienced. They also signed up victims for assistance in sifting their ashes.
Some people had insurance, and some didn’t. Even for those who had insurance received, some aid from FEMA. For those who did not have insurance, I heard the number of $30,000 being available. During these last two weeks, people became acutely aware of every word in their insurance policy. Cheaper policies had more words built in to limit the payments. Remember the old saying that “you get what you pay for?” However, the good news is that most folks indicated that the insurance adjuster paid to the limits of the policy. If they pay the maximum, then it makes little difference how many diamond rings you lost! They did not ask for a lot of details. Some insurance settlement checks were already beginning to arrive. In most cases the check went to the mortgage company to close out the home loan.
The only anger I saw was from a volunteer fireman. When he described the technical aspects of fighting the fire he was forced to make decisions that some houses were to be saved, while others were allowed to burn in the best interests of trying to stop the fire. He came to tears when he told that some that he choose to burn belonged to people he knew. Then the anger came out when he told of suspicions that some of the multiple fires that have sprung up in the last few days were set on purpose. It seems that looters have been found looting neighborhoods for valuables. And the looting goes on while a set fire has forced people to flee for safety.
Certification of Relief Workers
Each of the workers on my team were certified by “United Methodist Committee On Relief”. The Red Cross and other disaster teams have their own certification. Access to disaster areas is limited to workers wearing a specific badge. Many people in the Austin area wanted to help. A quick one day training course in the local area provided them with a temporary certification. Others can contact their local church, the Red Cross or the District office of the Methodist church. Here in North Texas we can learn about the next training schedule by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
The process of sifting ashes provides a double benefit. You might find some valuables in the ashes and the home owner gains relief as they release their hold on a lifetime of belongings. Since there was no water to put out the fire, everything is reduced to ashes. Ashes are about 6 inches deep. The frames and springs from the chairs are still neatly arranged around the fireplace. The bed frames and mattress springs are right in the middle of the bedroom, with the fan motor as it fell from the ceiling. Dishes are still in the remains of the dishwasher.
We started the sorting by removing all the metal items, such as sinks, dishwashers, bed parts, file cabinets, hot water heaters etc. Then you have a 6 inch covering of ash over the concrete slab. That is when the sorting begins. Home owners go for the most valuable items first. Home owners sort with garden rakes looking for larger valuables. Sometimes, that is all they ask of those who came to sort. Others are carrying different emotions and want to search some areas or all areas with a sifting screen. However, they soon come to the conclusion that almost everything is totally burnt. Sifting a house with a screen could take 10 workers one to two days. After you have searched for a diamond ring or other valuables they soon realize that all is lost and give up. The effort has been a funeral for their belongings. Now they are ready for the bulldozer to take away the slab and start the next phase of healing.
A Fire Victim’s Grief and Fears
One family had two beautiful girls of grade school age. They showed the most emotional damage. The children were now afraid of trees and wind. Especially they were afraid of rebuilding on the site where their home burnt. Nothing looked the same. The undergrowth in the forest was completely gone. It was burnt down to the soil. Each tree was black up to a fairly high level. They looked like black sticks in the ground. Leaves and pine needles were falling fast, as the trees gave way to the previous week’s damage. The leaves and needles on the ground gave the appearance of the fall season. Some home sites will be sold in the coming months, without rebuilding.
Others took a different view. Life had delivered a blow but they would be here for the long term. It was just a bad step on the journey of life and they were looking forward to the next new house on this site. For the current time many were still experiencing a constant change of about 4 or 5 different kinds of emotions.
Where is God?
We can thank God that only two people died in this disaster. If the winds had blown hard at night, many would have slept too long. Today, all victims are still experiencing shock. They are still dealing with the logistics of life and have not yet got around to dealing with “Where is God”. However, you can see goodwill all around. Even people who do not profess a faith are pouring out all kinds of support for their neighbors. Churches are convenient places of aid, meals, clothing and a sympathetic ear. Victims gain a lot of information from conversations around the meal table. Here, church members are helping neighbors in the name of Jesus. It is not very obvious, but the love of God is in the helping hand found at the church! The relief workers on my team were all devoting time, travel costs, equipment costs etc, just because Jesus asked his followers to love others.
Dealing With Your Own Personal Fire
As you approach eternity, you will pass your first test, if it is found that you have accepted Jesus and followed him. This is described in Romans 14:10. However, there will be a fire in your second test. In 1Cor 3: 9-13 you will learn that all those good deeds that you thought you did, will be tested by fire. Some of your good works will burn like the grass and underbrush in Bastrop. Some of your good works will survive. Many students wait until the night before the exam to prepare. But, like the fire in Bastrop, consider this as the strong knock on your front door. Be wise and be ready!