Texas wildfires prompt voluntary evacuation of Camp Allen

September 7, 2011

Before voluntarily evacuating on Sept. 8, Camp Allen staff moved resident horses, snakes, and birds to safety, installed sprinklers on roofs and closed up buildings in hopes that the beloved Episcopal Diocese of Texas campground would be spared damage from a devastating wildfire burning a few miles away.

"The smoke is rolling in. All the guests have left. We've moved all the animals off the property for their safety. The staff is outside now, watering down the buildings and closing up, preparing to shut down the camp until Monday," according to Kathy, an employee who asked that her last name be withheld.

"I'm kind of nervous," added the employee, who estimated the fire to be about three to five miles away from the 90-year-old campground, retreat and conference center in Navasota. "I'd hate for something to happen to Camp Allen, it's such a wonderful place.

"The phones have been ringing all morning with people who've come here and love our facility. They tell us they're praying for us and hoping for the best," she added.

Although the camp "does not appear to be in jeopardy unless the winds should shift from the northeast direction … many of the staffers who live in the surrounding areas have been evacuated and the fate of their homes is not known," according to a statement posted on the diocesan website.

Prayers, as well as offers of financial assistance and other aid poured into diocesan offices in Houston, even as large wildfires continued in various locations throughout the state and the death toll rose from two to four.

"We are grateful for the response we've had to the wildfires, even as we continue to pray for the hundreds of firefighters who labor under extreme conditions trying to contain the damage," said the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle in a Sept. 8 statement.

"We have had a number of parishioners lose their homes and we know the devastation around Bastrop, in northern Austin and in East Texas will require our continued support and relief efforts," he added. "We have teams ready to offer pastoral care once the immediate situation is contained."

He cited local congregations like St. Luke's on the Lake in Austin, where parishioners quickly mobilized to respond to the needs of those displaced, offering shelter, meals and other assistance, particularly to those affected by the Steiner Ranch fire.

One of three dozen fires in the state, it charred 162 acres, destroyed 24 homes, and damaged 30 others. Officials said at a Sept. 7 press conference that the fire was about 75 percent contained and that they hoped for full containment by Sept. 8.

St. Luke's parish administrator Nancy Phillips said in a statement posted on the diocesan website that as far as she knew, "no St. Luke's members lost their homes or suffered severe damage."

Meanwhile, Steiner Ranch area residents were allowed to return to their homes. The church is planning to host a Sept. 11 communitywide gathering, facilitated by a counselor, so those affected by the fire will have an opportunity to talk about their experiences, according to Phillips.

Doyle also praised the efforts of Calvary Church in Bastrop, about 30 miles east of Austin, where another major fire had been burning for five days. Officials said that fire killed two people, displaced about 5,000, destroyed some 1,400 homes and scorched approximately 35,000 acres of land throughout the county. It was about 30 percent contained on Sept. 8.

The Rev. Lisa Hines "continues to do heavy duty in Bastrop along with the former rector of Calvary Church, the Rev. Ken Kesselus," Doyle said. At least 30 families from Calvary, or about 30 percent of the congregation, have lost their homes, he added. Hines, who has served as Calvary's rector for about a year, also lost her home.

A list of items needed, both for firefighters and for the displaced, is available on the diocesan website. News and other information was being regularly updated, according to diocesan communication director Carol Barnwell.

"In East Texas, where small volunteer fire departments have lost much of their state funding this year, firefighters are in need of funds to fuel their personal vehicles, used to get to and from blazes. There will be huge needs in the near future – funds and Lowes, Home Depot and Walmart-type gift cards are most needed currently," she added in an email to ENS.

Doyle praised both lay and clergy for their leadership. "We are grateful for their witness to God's love and care in the midst of the devastation of the wildfire," he said in a statement posted on the diocesan website. "They have offered to us all a vision of God's hand at work in the world around us and we see in their selfless actions a glimpse of God's kingdom where neighbor cares for neighbor.

"We are not yet out of the storm," he added. "We have yet to see the full containment of the fire in Bastrop, which now spreads over 36,000 acres. We still have several fires that are not contained in central Texas, including the one in Magnolia which is affecting parishioners and families in west Houston. The fires continue to burn and so we continue to monitor and help everywhere we can.

"What we know is that as a community of faith our work of building up from the ashes is yet to be undertaken. The grieving and shock will give way in the weeks to come to clarity of vision for rebuilding our communities. The Episcopal Church has a strong heritage of engaging in disaster relief and we, in the Diocese of Texas, will not shy away from coming to the aid of our neighbors. We are already working on response teams who are ready to come and help with pastoral care and the rebuilding efforts."

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