With central Texas fires mostly contained, disaster relief volunteers press on

BASTROP—Nearly three weeks after wildfires scorched 35,000 acres near the central Texas town of Bastrop, east of Austin, disaster relief volunteers with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention were facing weeks more in clean up work.

In Bastrop County alone, 1,554 homes burned. By Sept. 21, the fire was 95 percent contained, the Texas Forest Service said, partly thanks to some much-needed rain and cooler temperatures.

“Right now, we have more than 100 work orders for clean-up crews to come in and help property owners in the Bastrop area,” SBTC DR Director Jim Richardson said. “And it will grow as more people seek help with their homes. There is a lot of work to be done.”

After the fires started over Labor Day weekend, SBTC DR volunteers spent 10 days preparing more than 5,500 meals for emergency responders and evacuees. The teams also set up shower and laundry units for emergency workers from their base at First Baptist Church of Bastrop.

By Sept. 19, they had transitioned to clean-up ministry—something Richardson said would take weeks.

Statewide, 250 of 254 Texas counties remained under burn bans.

About 50 additional disaster relief workers were helping in the aftermath of fires in Magnolia, north of Houston, and in Atlanta, in northeast Texas. The volunteers were working out of First Baptist Church of Magnolia and Westside Baptist Church in Atlanta.

“I have never seen such widespread destruction in all the disaster relief that I have done,” said Scottie Stice, a veteran disaster relief volunteer and an SBTC field ministry associate. “Everywhere you drive, it’s not just damage. In many cases the home is gone. It’s just a pile of ash.

“In the zones where the fires were most active, it is nearly every house on the street.”

If past DR deployments are an indication, ministry opportunities will present themselves as the work goes on—this time for weeks, Stice said.

“Some of [the victims] are already in recovery mode looking to rebuild,” Stice said. “Some of them are still in shock.”

“We are ministering to people. We’re finding folks who don’t know the Lord and were spared from losing everything and asking some questions. The Christian folks are leaning hard on the Lord and just looking for help, looking for peace.”

FIRE CHANGED SERMON PLANS
One week after the central Texas fires began, Raymond Edge, pastor of FBC Bastrop, said he had planned to preach on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks from Psalm 46:1-7—a refuge passage. But the ferocious wildfires the previous week left his church feeling far removed from 9/11 remembrances.

“That had become so far away because right now this is what we are living,” Edge told the TEXAN. Several dozen church members lost homes, he said.

Instead, he was able to draw some of his Sunday message from the original passage but turned his focus on the church and community. Psalm 31:1-4 became the source of the sermon title, “In you, oh Lord, I put my trust”—a passage in which the Lord is a “rock of refuge.”

Adam Espurvoa, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Emanuel in Bastrop, spoke from his own experience and God’s provision. He quoted Psalm 34:7: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers them.”

Espurvoa and his congregation mostly live in rural Bastrop County on acreages surrounded by pine trees. All of the 300 pines on his lot burned as the fire circled his house.
“I can touch the wall of my house and touch the ground where the fire stopped,” Espurvoa said.

River Valley Christian Fellowship pastor Cody Whitfill, who lost his house in the fire, said 16 families in his church of 400 lost their homes.

“My thoughts are to emphasize that our hope is Christ,” Whitfill said prior to Sept. 11 services.

In addition to a disaster relief team from the SBTC preparing meals for emergency responders and evacuees, members of River Valley also began feeding people the day after the fires began.

Initally, 5,000 people were displaced, with many of those returning to their neighborhoods as the fires were contained.

Most of the congregation of Iglesia Bautista Emanuel was sleeping in the church building because roads to their homes were blocked by police each night due to looting, Espurvoa said. The area also was without electricity.

The pastor, his wife Eva and eight senior members of the church left Bastrop Sept. 12 for the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment in central Texas to participate in an already scheduled senior retreat. Espurvoa, 73, considered staying behind but church members encouraged him to go for some much-needed rest.

Espurvoa was able to find some humor in the somber atmosphere as he noted, “I’ve been preaching for 49 years. This is the first time I’ve preached in blue jeans and tennis shoes. All my suits are smoked up.”

Edge, meanwhile, said FBC Bastrop spent their usual Sunday School hour in a time of fellowship and prayer. Just having the chance to talk and cry together meant a great a deal to them, he said.

The pastors said some of their families were away from home when the evacuation alert was given. Others barely escaped.

Edge told of a man from his church who was taking a Sunday afternoon nap when his son, who lived next door, came to the house to get him out. The man looked out the window to see a wall of fire heading directly toward his home. The two families had only time enough to get in their cars and drive away as flames leapt up on both sides of the road to safety.

Edge has pastored at FBC Bastrop for 15 years and drawn close to the families he has watched grow up in the church. The first week of the fires he cried for and with his congregation. Then, he added, God would renew his strength so he could continue to minister to so many who were hurting.

“More than anything else I have asked God to let me help with spiritual needs,” he said.

Espurvoa said he wants to ensure his congregation is cared for so they can help others too. The Austin Baptist Association delivered water and groceries to the Bastrop churches. He said some of the donations collected by his church members have then been given to their own relatives and neighbors. As his members graciously share their provisions with others, Espurvoa said they will be a witness of the grace and mercy of Jesus.

Jason Bray, a staff member of River Valley Christian Fellowship, who coordinated the church’s meal ministry, said Texas-owned H.E.B grocery chain donated substantially to feeding evacuees.

The SBTC feeding unit at FBC Bastrop prepared hot meals that were then delivered via Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) to people in a shelter in Paige, Texas, and to some people sifting through remains of their homes.

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