One small Texas town’s remarkable volunteer wildfire relief effort

Texas resident Paula Bowman watched Hurricane Katrina pummel New Orleans in 2005 and wondered why some of the city’s residents did not take action for themselves.

“I remember telling [my husband] as we were watching the whole phenomenon on the news, ‘I just couldn’t sit there and wait for somebody.’ The federal government cannot be everywhere at every moment. You have to help yourself and do what you have to do,” Bowman told The Daily Caller.

So when her phone rang at 7:30 a.m. on Labor Day and a friend told her that local officials were evacuating people to a nearby high school, she got her chance to act. A wildfire had kicked up just outside of Magnolia, a small town of 1,326 about 45 miles northwest of Houston.

The evacuees needed pet carriers for the animals they had brought with them, so Bowman created a Facebook group to organize donations. Within three hours, she had 300 pet carriers on her hands.

For the next 10 days, she and more than a dozen other community residents — most of whom had never met each other — organized a remarkable volunteer relief effort for a fire that consumed 19,000 acres, 76 homes and 24 structures. Almost entirely without federal aid, Magnolia residents pulled together to provide 24-hour support to the volunteer firefighters and relief to evacuees.

Bowman and her colleagues set up a “command center” at Magnolia West High School, where a hot food line gave hearty meals to firefighters and a rehab area gave them medicine, drinks and snacks before they returned to the front lines. The food, medicine and drinks were all donated by people in the area.

The relief effort brought together every aspect of the community. Bowman used her connections at the local YMCA to mobilize volunteers. Mike Costello and other members of Wildwood United Methodist Church, about seven miles east of Magnolia, provided relief and spiritual guidance to displaced homeowners and are currently helping to rebuild homes.

The husband of Keri Hefner, another key organizer, leveraged his position at H-E-B Grocery and convinced the company’s president, Scott McClelland, to send H-E-B’s mobile kitchen, volunteers and thousands of dollars of groceries to Magnolia during the most difficult days.

The local school district allowed its buses to be used to transport volunteers from the YMCA to the command center, and Verizon Wireless set up wireless Internet service at the command center and donated phones and phone chargers for any organizers or firefighters who needed them.

Cecil Bell, who runs a construction business with heavy machinery, sent bulldozers to help the firefighters establish “firelines” — swaths of land that are stripped down to the dirt to eliminate fuel for the fire. Pips Coffee donated 700 gallons of coffee for the firefighters over the 10  grueling days, with volunteers rising as early as 3 a.m. to brew the java.

When trucks broke down, men from the community repaired them. The Tomball Retirement Center gave boxes of Clif Energy Bars. Red Bull donated cans of its energy drink. Cypress Ace Hardware made t-shirts and sold them for $10, with all proceeds going to the relief effort. Children sent handmade cards to the command center thanking the firefighters.

Bowman’s Facebook group peaked at 22,000 members from 19 countries, and she said that donations would show up at the command center only an hour or two after she posted a request to Facebook. As quickly as the 80 fire houses from around the region had responded to fight the blaze, volunteers and donors responded as well.

“People saw a need, no matter how small, and they met it,” Bowman said. “We had people who were very poor here, and maybe all they brought was a box of cereal, but everybody, no matter how poor or how rich, how blessed, everybody in this community participated in some way.”