DR volunteers respond to Panhandle wildfires

AMARILLO?Wildfires swept across the Texas Panhandle Feb. 27, charring 25,534 acres that eventually destroyed 70 homes. In less than a week disaster relief volunteers from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention were sifting through what remained of the material possessions of displaced homeowners, attempting to recover prized possessions as diverse as rings, diamonds, silver, ceramic tile and lava rock before cleaning down to the slabs.

Amid offering a first response to the immediate needs, the 11-member team also shared a gospel message of eternal significance. At least one person professed faith in Christ after asking one of the volunteers why they had come to Amarillo.

“The first thing you do obviously is to develop a relationship,” explained Doug Scott from Westside Baptist Church in Atlanta, Texas. “You don’t go in and start preaching. You put your arm around them. You don’t tell them you know you they feel because you don’t.”

Nonetheless, the opportunities to plant seeds of the gospel always occur. Just talking about past deployments invigorates the tired volunteers as they tell of lives that were changed, even churches that were started out of disastrous situations.

Prolonged dry conditions mixed with unusually high winds in Amarillo have set off a rash of fires springing up and devouring fields and homes.

The city of Amarillo experienced the worst of the damage as two fires raged through different parts of the city. Firefighters scrambled to battle flames in the north and the south, while residents fled for their lives.

An SBTC assessment crew coordinated with a local emergency management team to determine where their skills were most needed. Scott told the TEXAN consideration is given to those lacking the insurance that would have allowed them to hire help in removing debris and cleaning.

As soon as the fires abated, SBTC’s DR team rolled in with heavy machinery and enthusiasm to begin the clean-up process in the village of Palisades, the area hardest hit by the flames. A second team deployed by Texas Baptist Men attended needs north of town. Coulter Street Baptist Church hosted the SBTC team while River Road Baptist Church on the north side assisted TBM and opened their doors to displaced residents.

Initially, SBTC volunteers helped residents sift through the ashes to locate missing articles that they hoped to recover. Stan Hooker, a 52-year-old Palisades homeowner, wept when the team located pieces of red ceramic tile once laid by his father who had died years earlier. That alone provided a memory of the place he had called home.

The man had moved in with his brother’s family across the street after fire engulfed his house. Both men already were dealing with back problems when the DR crew came to the rescue.

According to the Office of Emergency Management, an estimated $12.9 million in damage occurred in Potter and Randall counties.

Hardest hit was Palisades where 25 of the 155 houses were destroyed. Lake Tanglewood and Timbercreek Canyon also reported damage to eight houses. Nestled in a canyon, funneling wind sped the flames south of Amarillo, giving residents little to no advanced warning of the danger. Most of the people in that area escaped with nothing but their lives, prompting the focus of DR ministry.

“Fire is a strange critter,” Scott said. “It will burn a house, then jump a house. Things you don’t think will burn do and things you think will, don’t.”

“We’ve heard story after story of how families had to drive through a ring of fire to get out,” said DR volunteer chaplain Traci Rogers. “It burned their cars as they were trying to leave. It’s not an easy area to get out of,” she explained. Rogers is the children’s minister at Coulter Street Baptist, and has been on the scene working in her capacity as chaplain since the fires began.

“I’ve been here to give them someone to talk to, hug them if they need a hug and remind them that this isn’t the end of their lives. It can be a new beginning.”

“Having our ladies with us makes a big difference,” Scott said, expressing appreciation for the three women who were part of this deployment, as well as Rogers, whose familiarity with the local surroundings paved the way for ministry.
John Harden of Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler said DR work is interrupted when there’s an opportunity to share their faith.

“What we all do is stop work when we have an opportunity. Then once we make that bond we start witnessing. We don’t just work, we’re here to share the love of Christ.”

When four local prisoners were assigned to help clean up the area, the DR volunteers made sure they also received a gospel witness, added Keith Riggs of Henderson.

Local pastors and directors of missions are given the names of folks with whom they build relationships, providing ongoing spiritual help when it’s most needed, according to Riggs, a DR assessment volunteer from Trinity Baptist Church in Henderson.

Also deployed on this trip were volunteers from First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview and First Baptist Church of Cason.

The fire that caused damage began when winds gusting at 69 miles an hour knocked over a power line that sparked and set the ground ablaze.

Due to the strong gusts, the fires did not stick to a straight path. Instead, they were buffeted around, jumping from place to place.

“It looks like a tornado came through,” Rogers said. “The massive amount of wind carried that fire all around. Just like a tornado, it might take out one house and leave the next one. It was just very sporadic.”

Despite the lack of warning and the difficulty of escape, no deaths occurred. The devastating losses were limited to homes and possessions.

Pat Riggs of Henderson recalled one house where all of the rubble had fallen into the basement. “They’re going to have to dig that out,” she explained. In some areas the lack of dumpsters made it impossible to remove debris immediately. Items were sorted for recycling in order to recover income from some of the loss.

While some of the escapes were narrow, survivors often expressed gratitude to God for their delivery. The DR team related the story of one woman who was trapped in her home as the fire and winds knocked out electricity, making her unable to open her garage and get her car out. Her husband was one of the many volunteer firefighters who had been called away to the other side of town.

Though firefighters don’t usually have their phones with them, he happened to be in his truck at the very moment his wife frantically called and he headed back along roads completely obscured by smoke. He was able to make it in time to get his wife out just as the back side of the house went up in flames. Both husband and wife gave thanks to God for how things turned out, volunteers recalled.

The Amarillo Globe-News quoted Palisades volunteer firefighters and resident Randy Hooker as saying, “Among the lasting impressions?the outpouring of love, prayer and thanksgiving offered by the Amarillo community. Everywhere and everyone I talked to in essence said the very same thing, ‘Praise the Lord.'”

God of Wonders Fellowship, an SBTC-affiliated congregation, held prayer meetings March 2 for families affected by wildfires, according to pastor Randy Srader.

Rogers, the DR chaplain, described the conditions for many victims as “total devastation.” These families have lost everything. At least 8 to 10 people I’ve talked to don’t have any insurance or were seriously underinsured.”

At the onset, the SBTC teams had work orders for 12 houses, but learned of more opportunities as people returned to check out the damage.

The team has done a great job of getting in there and getting after it,” Rogers said. “They are on the heavy equipment, clearing of

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