Fighting Fires in Texas
By Linda Unger*
September 8, 2011—“We may need a new church van by the time this is over,” said Laura Young of Linden United Methodist Church’s efforts to help Texas fire fighters battle nearly a dozen fires in Cass County, Texas.
“We took out the back bench and filled the van with coolers, first-aid equipment, and anything the fire fighters might need,” she said, as they seek to get the blazes under control.
Young is the wife of Linden UMC Pastor Kevin Young, and one of dozens of volunteers from the congregation and the North District of the Texas Annual Conference working around the clock to help those affected by the wildfires as well as those who are on the fire lines trying to stem their reach.
“The community has really come together,” Young told the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), as she returned home after volunteering during the “night shift.”
Linden is part of a triangle of towns in northeastern Texas that has been on fire since Sunday, September 4. Over the past week and across the state, the Texas Forest Service has responded to a total of 172 fires burning more than 135,000 acres.
“I know, from our conversations with conference personnel, that volunteers are out providing what assistance they can,” said UMCOR US Disaster Response executive, Rev. Tom Hazelwood. “UMCOR is prepared to resource the conferences and respond to the needs of survivors,” he added.
In Bastrop County, 25 miles east of Austin, in the Southwest Texas Conference, fires have charred some 45 square miles. The Texas Forest Service indicated that 785 homes were completely destroyed there, bringing the total number of homes ruined to date in this disaster to 1,023.
“We offer prayers for those who have lost so much because of the drought and fires in Texas,” Hazelwood said. He indicated that UMCOR will deploy a disaster response consultant to Bastrop County on Friday.
"The central Texas fires have been devastating to several of our communities and church families. The communities of Bastrop, Spicewood, Cedar Creek, and the Steiner housing development in Austin have been particularly devastated,” Southwest Texas Conference Bishop Jim Dorff wrote on the conference website.
“We are deeply grateful for the prayers and other expressions of support. Our churches and pastors are hard at work providing shelter and support for those left homeless. Our God is present in these communities and renewal will occur," he said.
Shelter, food, and comfort
Back in Cass County, in the Texas Annual Conference, Laura Young said the focus of the churches and community there has been to shelter, feed, and comfort those who have had to evacuate their homes and to support the laboring fire fighters.
Dozens of volunteers are staffing the emergency command center, relaying information to affected families via the internet, providing space in Linden UMC for evacuees and on the grounds of neighboring Pinecrest Baptist Church for pets, and even herding loose cattle into a rodeo arena for safety.
They have supplied fire fighters with diesel for refueling their trucks, gel to protect their faces, batteries to keep their flashlights lit at night, and calamine lotion to cut the itch from poison ivy.
“These small town volunteer fire departments are doing amazing work,” she said. “The more we can do to help them, the safer they are and the faster they can contain these fires.”
As volunteer fire fighters, she said, they also have to punch the clock at their day jobs and, at some point, sleep. “I ended up bringing home a fire-retardant jump suit last night,” Young said.
“When Melissa left her fire-fighting shift at midnight last night, she was planning to leave her jumpsuit outside the church to ‘air out.’ I brought it home with me,” Young explained, “so she didn’t have to spend her valuable sleeping time doing laundry or put on a sweaty, soot-covered, smoke-smelling jump suit when she returned.”
Although the situation in Cass County is getting a bit better, there is still a long way to go before the fires are controlled. “Yesterday we woke up to twelve active fires; today there are eight,” Young reported.
*Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.