Within a few days, at least 11 families from the church, including the pastor's, and 20 from a sister Southern Baptist church, First Baptist Church in Bastrop, had lost their houses in the catastrophic blaze that spread across the county Labor Day weekend and continued to burn during the week.
As wildfires continued burning across central Texas, disaster relief volunteers with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention were serving weary firefighters and displaced residents in Bastrop County east of Austin and in Montgomery County north of Houston.
As of Sept. 9, the wildfires, some jumping creeks and ravines and driven by changing winds, had burned nearly 35,000 acres and 1,386 homes in Bastrop County alone, displacing 5,000 residents earlier in the week, the Texas Forest Service reported. Some of those evacuees were able to return home, state officials said. The Bastrop County fire was about 30 percent contained after five days of firefighters battling it from the air and on the ground.
State officials said the Bastrop County wildfire is the worst on record. Earlier in the week, the charred bodies of two people were found -- the only fatalities reported to date. Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, state officials said 11,000 acres and 75 homes had burned.
About 40 SBTC disaster relief volunteers were serving meals and providing showers at First Baptist Church in Bastrop and First Baptist Church in Magnolia, said Jim Richardson, the SBTC's DR director.
"It's going to be at least a week or more before we can do any clean-up work," Richardson told the Southern Baptist Texan. In addition to feeding, disaster relief ministry also provides clean-up and recovery teams and chaplains when needed.
In Bastrop, pastor Cody Whitfill of River Valley and his family were among the thousands of residents evacuated on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. In the next two days church members prepared 5,500 hamburgers and 1,000-plus tacos for relief workers battling the most destructive wildfire on record in Texas.
After a long day of delivering meals, Whitfill learned the fire had moved within a half-mile of his house but had not jumped the road along the subdivision. "That was a good report," he said.
By Tuesday morning, Sept. 6, however, he was standing on his property where only the ashes of his house remained.
Much of his focus in the pulpit in recent weeks has centered on "suffering well for Christ," Whitfill said. "When I stand up and preach next Sunday, the message will be the same -- that Christ really is our hope," he told the Southern Baptist Texan. "But I wonder how well that would have stuck had we not gone through this with people who had lost everything in the same way. It will help our witness."
When the opportunity came to serve those fighting the fires, the six-year-old church already had experience grilling 500 burgers each Monday night for the homeless, low-income folks and anyone else who would show up on Main Street. Their work through a nonprofit ministry formed by members of the church made it easier to be prepared when the need arose to serve relief volunteers.
Whitfill believes their continued concern for physical needs will provide an opportunity to care for spiritual needs as well. In the words of his wife Melinda, speaking to a reporter from KPRC-TV in Houston hours after learning their house was gone, "This is our community where we live, and we love them. We're to be the hands and feet of Jesus."
In the fire-ravaged areas -- with low early morning temperatures around 60 degrees -- fire officials were hoping to step up their efforts. But there was concern that if winds picked up, the fires could gain momentum again. Highs have been in the 80s and 90s, but the extended forecast called for higher temperatures.
Statewide during the first week of September, state officials reported that 1,626 homes had burned in 176 separate fires engulfing a combined 126,000 acres.
Earlier in the week, Richardson of the SBTC urged prayer for the fire victims, the firefighters and the nearby churches. "The churches have the opportunity to share the hope of Jesus during this crisis time. Also, pray for more people to get trained in disaster relief," Richardson said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry broke from his presidential campaigning on Sept. 6 to tour some of the burned areas by helicopter.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the first responders who are working around the clock to keep Texans out of harm's way and with the families across our state who are threatened by these wildfires," Perry said.
President Obama telephoned Perry on Sept. 7, offering condolences for lives lost and promising federal assistance.
It has been one of the hottest, driest Texas summers on record. Of 254 Texas counties, 250 remained under burn bans, the Texas Forest Service reported.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter and Jerry Pierce are news editor and managing editor, respectively, for the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
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