BASTROP, Texas (ABP) -- Dan Franklin couldn’t even smell the scent of smoke Friday that entailed the destruction of about 1,500 homes, the burning of about 34,000 acres and the loss of two lives. The volunteer chaplain with the Texas Baptist chaplaincy office nevertheless witnessed the personal toll of the Texas fires in Bastrop County north of Austin.
“One lost his house,” he said of a man he met at a small camp where members of the Texas Baptist Men fed firefighters. “He is talking pretty well, but I know it’s hard. He needed to talk a lot. It’s a horrible situation.”
Franklin said firefighters struggle with hard decisions such as deciding which house to save when there is time to save only one.
Senior Pastor Richard Shahan of Calvary Baptist Church in Bastrop lost his home, as did several others in his church. He and his family are staying with a member of his congregation until they can move to an apartment provided by his insurance company.
When he received word of the fire, Shahan was told he had half an hour before the fire took his home. His attitude has been one of acceptance and turning to God. So have those of church members he has spoken to who had even less time to escape.
“Okay, we're like Job,” Shahan said. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The fire was 60 percent contained by Monday [Sept. 12], although other fires continued to burn throughout Texas.
In the week leading up to Saturday [Sept. 10], the Texas Forest Service responded to 179 fires that have burned 170,686 acres.
A fire in Cass County in east Texas burned about 40,500 acres and destroyed 28 homes. It is 80 percent contained. The Riley Road Fire northwest of Houston burned about 19,000 acres, is 75 percent contained and has destroyed at least 59 homes.
An extreme drought situation in Texas has set the state aflame. Out of 254 Texas counties, 250 have reported burn bans, but anything from a welder’s slag to a spark from a chain striking the road have been known to cause fires, Texas Forest Service representatives have said.
Those dry conditions and high winds made the Bastrop Complex Fire explode to more than 1,000 acres within a few hours, Pastor Raymond Edge of First Baptist Church in Bastrop said.
“In the afternoon, around 3 p.m., a member called and said, ‘Because of the fire I need to get out.’” Edge said. “I said, ‘What fire?’ We didn’t know about it downtown.… Some got out with what they had on -- it was that quick.”
Within the next few days, it would be the central topic for the thousands displaced. People would meet each other in the area grocery stores and hug and cry together in the aisles, Edge said.
“It has touched the entire community,” Edge said.
With the fire more under control, cleanup may be next for the area, Dick Talley, disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, said.
Talley said the focus of the fire is now on hotspots in the interior. Neighborhoods in Bastrop are slowly opening back up. He said only about 260 people were in area shelters as of Sept. 9.
“You’ve got a lot of people who are in shock right now,” Talley said. “The biggest thing is to pray for the victims and the workers. Most are volunteer firefighters. They’re all tired and worn out.”
For now Talley said the best way people can help -- along with prayer -- is monetary donations. It is difficult to tell what will be needed at any given moment, he explained, and many of the supplies that people traditionally donate can be a burden on families who have no place to store them.
Edge said First Baptist Church in Bastrop has about three warehouses full of clothing. Area churches including First Baptist Church in Austin are holding special offerings to bring relief.
Edge said his church plans to use land for a planned expansion of the church as a staging area for chainsaw gangs to help clear away debris.
“It has been quite a disaster for us,” Edge said.
Matthew Waller is county government reporter for the San Angelo Standard Times. This article was written as a free-lance assignment for Associated Baptist Press.