Wildfire victims buoyed by volunteers

Baptist Press
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Posted: Mar 14, 2011 5:00 PM
Wildfire victims buoyed by volunteers
AMARILLO, Texas (BP)--Vicki Hooker was driving home from church when she got word from her husband, a volunteer firefighter, that a wildfire was headed their way south of town.

Hooker remembered dedicating their brick home to the Lord years earlier, and she trusted God's provision. Flames skirted the property, destroying their shop no more than 20 feet from the home. The blackened wooden rafters of the house and the bowed tin roof reveal just how close they came to losing it all.

Two days later when Hooker walked through the house, her Bible remained open to Mark 4, the lesson she had prepared to teach that Sunday at Coulter Road Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. Jesus' parable -- on the need for light to remain on a stand -- reminded Hooker of her neighbor recounting that the entire Palisades area had been pitch-black except for the lamp outside the Hooker residence extending from "a wooden post that should have burned."

"Your house was the only light in the community," the neighbor had said.

Vicki's brother-in-law, Stan Hooker, was one week away from having his remodeled house insured when the flames destroyed the family homestead Feb. 27.

"You can see what's left of it," Doug Scott of Atlanta, Texas, said, pointing to a concrete pile of rubble.

Scott led the first team of disaster relief volunteers deployed to Amarillo from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Within five days of the fire, the 10-member crew helped the uninsured homeowner clear the charred debris and get the lot in a condition to rebuild.

"The first thing you do obviously is to develop a relationship," said Scott, a member of 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 how 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.

As soon as the Amarillo wildfires abated, SBTC's disaster relief team rolled in with heavy machinery and enthusiasm to begin the cleanup 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 Road 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 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.

"It was like angels from heaven," said Randy Hooker, who teared up trying to express appreciation for the ministry to him and his brother. "He was really distraught and didn't know what direction to go." The arrival of the volunteers cheered the disabled brother, Hooker's wife said.

The wildfires that swept across the Texas panhandle burned 25,534 acres and eventually destroyed 70 homes, damaging 20 others. Texas routinely experiences disasters from hailstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, raising the average price of homeowners insurance to the highest level in the country at $1,460 per year. The Palisades area on the south side of Amarillo was harder hit and more likely to involve uninsured property due to the age of the homes and issues with water supply.

According to the Office of Emergency Management, an estimated $13 million in damage occurred in Potter and Randall counties. Nestled in a canyon, funneling wind sped the flames south of Amarillo, giving residents little to no advance warning of the danger. Most of the people in the area escaped with nothing but their lives, prompting the focus of disaster relief 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."

Traci Rogers, a volunteer chaplain with SBTC disaster relief, said she has heard story after story of families having to drive through a ring of fire to escape.

"It burned their cars as they were trying to leave," she said. Rogers is the children's minister at Coulter Road Baptist and had been on the scene working to assess needs since the fires began "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."

Amid the immediate needs, the SBTC 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 from out of town to help Amarillo.

As the volunteers worked with four local prisoners who had been assigned to help clean up the area, the team made sure they also received a Gospel witness,

John Harden of Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler said disaster relief work can accommodate any opportunity to share one's faith.

"Once we make that bond, we start witnessing," Harden said. "We don't just work. We're here to share the love of Christ."

Local pastors and directors of missions are given the names of folks with whom the volunteers build relationships, providing ongoing spiritual help whenever it's most needed.

Also deployed with SBTC were volunteers from First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Texas, Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview and First Baptist Church in Cason.

Other churches like God of Wonders Fellowship, an SBTC-affiliated congregation in Amarillo, did their part by holding prayer meetings for families affected by wildfires.

While some of survivors narrowly escaped the wildfires, they often expressed gratitude to God for their delivery. The SBTC team told 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 said.

With the potential for disasters from tornadoes and wildfires increasing this time of year, opportunities remain for Southern Baptists to train to become disaster relief volunteers.

There's a job for anyone regardless of health issues, age, intelligence or profession, said Patsy Riggs, who is involved in training, chaplaincy and disaster assessment.

"It's so varied and there are multiple places to work. God can use you even though you think you're not capable," Riggs said.

Eddie Drake of Atlanta, Texas, first served with the SBTC's disaster relief team in Chile when they built temporary houses for earthquake victims last year. Having previously lived 50 miles north of Amarillo, Drake was eager to help the West Texas wildfire victims.

"It was probably the best decision I made this week to come down here and help those who are hurting from the devastation … and see the great overwhelming compassion not just from church people but neighbors and construction people who offered time and equipment," said Drake, who works regularly in construction. "I'm so glad to be a part of Jesus Christ and what He's doing in this place today."

Riggs' husband, Keith, said when believers are willing to give themselves to something like disaster relief, God provides the way.

"That's the joy I get as God allows me to witness Him at work, whether it's through me or around me," Riggs said. "I get to see what God's doing instead of reading about it in a Sunday School book, hearing a preacher talk about it or having a missionary come through."

Patsy Riggs said, "It doesn't settle home until you've actually been feet on the ground on the site. What a joy it is to serve the Lord."

As he took a break to thank the group for helping, Randy Hooker said, "Ya'll are just amazing. I can see God in your voice and your work and your attitude. Your willingness to help us is just amazing."

Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN. Michelle Covington, a TEXAN correspondent, contributed to this report. For more information about disaster relief, contact your state Baptist convention or the North American Mission Board.

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