Editor's Note: The following reflection by Rev. Marji Bishir shares observations from the North Texas Conference Disaster Response Team that traveled to the Central Texas town of Bastrop to help with response efforts after the wildfires.
By MARJI BISHIR
Center for Missional Outreach
On Sept. 20, I returned from a disaster response trip to Bastrop, a Central Texas town of about 7,000, 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 issued for Bastrop County. Since Sunday, Sept. 4, 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.
Our Early Response team was comprised of people from different NTC churches. None of them knew each other before we left, but they'd all taken a United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Basic Early Response Teamclass, had badges and were able to go with just a few days' notice. The main thing our five men and three women had in common was the desire to serve others, to be a Christian presence.
Upon arrival, we received a debriefing from our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission field coordinator, Larry Etter, who described our task as "doing funerals for houses." Most of the homeowners, who are required to be present with the team, just wanted to find something they could keep as a reminder of their previous lives. Usually, they hoped 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 would unearth ceramic items that survived intact. It was almost like doing an archaeology dig, with traumatized people directing our efforts.
On our first day, my team was joined by Vickie Huffman from San Antonio and Sean Raybuck from Wimberley. They had taken a special UMCOR class in spiritual and emotional care in 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 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 UMC, the Rev. Paul Harris said almost 30 families were burned out, "maybe 40 if you count the families in the preschool." 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, called Lost Pines, where they lived. 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 move. This leaves the church struggling with members leaving. First UMC of Bastrop is in the same position.
Some families had only a 15-minute 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 said 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 to death.
Despite the trauma, we saw signs of hope, like 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. First UMC Bastrop fed people lunch each day. They welcomed our team — even though we were covered with grit and filth. Our Christian presence was a sign of hope to the people of Bastrop as well.
It will be a long time before this town recovers. The drought, which caused all of this to begin with, continues. At this writing, the fires aren't even 100 percent 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."