Texas diocese launches collaborative wildfire relief effort

By Luke Blount
Posted Jan 31, 2012

[Episcopal Diocese of Texas] Officials in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas announced Jan. 30 that a coordinated effort to help Bastrop County families recover from last September’s wildfires has begun. Volunteers and donations are needed to help rebuilding efforts.

The diocese’s Texas Episcopal Disaster Relief and Development (TEDRD) is working with the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to start “Faith Village,” a housing center in Smithville, Texas that will house around 40 volunteers in a building donated by Smithville Baptist Church.

The Rev. Gill Keyworth, diocesan emergency response coordinator, is collaborating with local groups and the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Committee to create a strategic plan for relief efforts. Keyworth, a deacon at Emmanuel Church, Houston, has spent three days a week for the past few months in Bastrop. For her, the goal is teamwork.

“We’re not worrying about whether we are Lutherans or Episcopalians or Presbyterians. Everyone is working together,” Keyworth said.

In September 2011, Texans watched as 1670 homes and 35,000 acres of land burned in Bastrop County. Today, new construction is beginning, but there are still stark reminders of the past. What was once a beautiful, forested escape is now a landscape of blackened, leafless trees, rising up from a gray, barren ground.

A monstrous pile of rubble sits on the south side of Highway 71, constantly emptied and refilled with the stone and brick remains of homes. Around the county, crews work constantly to grind the dead trees into mulch, a process that will take years to complete. But behind the dark exterior, hope abounds. In just four months since Texas’ most devastating fire season, Bastrop County volunteers have pushed to organize a rebuilding movement.

The Episcopal Diocese of Texas immediately responded in the days after the fire. The diocese has raised more than $100,000, including $17,000 in gift cards for fire victims. Those funds were instrumental in helping families that had lost everything with essential needs.

Now, the mission has shifted focus to rebuilding homes, and faith-based organizations across Bastrop County are teaming up to begin the effort. When volunteers arrive, they will report to a central construction coordinator, who will use construction foremen to oversee specific projects. TEDRD has hired Gary Davis to act as one construction foreman. Davis previously served as the construction manager for Texas Episcopal Disaster Relief in Galveston following Hurricane Ike. His wife, Gena, is the vicar of Grace Church, Houston.

Faith Village is now open for registration here. Currently, much of the work still revolves around clean up. Many homes still lie in debris on the slabs where they once stood. Some items like pottery or metal objects can be seen lying broken amid the stone and brick.

Once the clean-up nears completion, construction projects will begin in earnest. TEDRD will use a grant from Episcopal Relief & Development as well as foundation grants to begin the relief project, but much more funding is needed to help an estimated 400 families that need assistance. Visit the Wildfire Relief Page to learn more about how to help.

Church provides support for community

The Rev. Lisa Hines was in California when she learned her home was in the pathway of a fire. She flew home not knowing whether her home was still standing.

“I never went home,” Hines said. By the time she returned, her husband, Chris, had already evacuated, leaving almost everything behind.

As rector of Calvary Church, Bastrop, Hines spent the next few days ensuring the safety of her parishioners. At one point the fire came so close to the downtown area of Bastrop that Hines packed the Eucharistic vessels into her car, in case she had to evacuate. After several weeks, the fire was officially declared extinguished on Oct. 10. The church and downtown survived, but 43 families from Calvary Church and School lost their homes, including the Hines family.

“In some ways it gave me a little advantage because I was one of them,” Hines said. “By virtue of showing up I had great moral authority.”

“A lot of times we use the phrase ‘I know how you feel,’ but Lisa could honestly say it,” Keyworth said.

Hines sold the property where her old home once stood and is moving closer to the church. Many other families from Calvary are still searching for permanent housing. Some are living in FEMA trailers; some are renting and others are staying with family. Many have had to move several times since the fire.

Over the Christmas holidays, Hines helped some families that couldn’t afford presents for their children. But even the families that were financially stable struggled with the emotional toll the fire had taken.

“It is a continuing source of stress throughout the community,” Hines said. “There is no question about that. Christmas was a hard time for families. Christmas is one of those times that strings the years together. It helps you remember all of the other Christmases when you pull those mementos out, and now there is this big gap.”

Though most fire victims have resolved to stay in Bastrop, Hines said at least five families decided to leave the area altogether. Calvary has been able to help many families get back on their feet including one parishioner whose son needs a heart transplant. Hines helped him with a down payment for his home.

“We’ve helped as many non-parishioners as parishioners,” Hines said. “But our biggest needs now are volunteers and money for construction materials. The long-term recovery of Bastrop depends on recreating a tax-base for the county because that is what runs the public school system.”

To learn more about how to help Bastrop County recover, visit www.epicenter.org/wildfire-relief.

— Luke Blount is staff writer and communications specialist for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.