One small Texas town’s remarkable volunteer wildfire relief effort

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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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.”

Bowman, Costello, Hefner and 10 other volunteers formed an organizing crew known as Team 212, after the Red Cross urged the group to take a name. Their mission was to support the firefighters.

“We supplied them with all their bad habits — Skoal and Copenhagen and cigarettes — anything they needed to fight the fire and be comfortable,” Hefner told TheDC. “Whatever they asked for, we got it for them. We didn’t really care what the Red Cross or anybody said.

“We said, they’re fighting fires, and they’re exhausted, so we’re gonna give them what they want.”

Costello, who in addition to working with his church was a part of Team 212, said that providence was guiding their efforts.

“We sat down Tuesday night and started making a list of the things we knew the firefighters were going to need, and half the time we couldn’t finish writing the word on the piece of paper before a case of it would show up in the building,” he said.

“It’s pretty cool when the Lord knows what you need before you even ask for it. I can’t give any credit to any one person except our Lord, who takes care of us.”

Whereas many New Orleans residents waited desperately for federal aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Magnolia residents feared that FEMA would step in and interfere with the system that the local volunteers had set up.

On Thursday, four days after the blaze began to burn, the California Interagency Incident Management Team 4 (C-4) arrived with heavy firefighting equipment — bulldozers to build firelines, and helicopters and a DC-10 plane to drop fire retardant and water from the sky. Part of their mission was to support the firefighters with food and medical care — what Team 212 was already doing.

One of 17 federal teams, the C-4 team is made up of workers from federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and local California fire departments. When a wildfire exceeds the capacity of local firefighting departments, the C-4 team arrives.

“They saved us,” said Nicky Kelly, deputy emergency management coordinator for Montgomery County. “When they finally came, they saved us.”

Kelly guessed that 6,000 more homes would have been destroyed without the DC-10, helicopters and bulldozers.

Their arrival was not without friction, however. Team 212 got word that a federal team, most likely FEMA, was on its way, and the group quickly bristled. They believed that the team would likely disrupt their system, but when the C-4 team arrived, the Californians were astounded at Team 212’s organization.

“It ain’t broken. We’re not going to fix it,” said Tony Martinez, the C-4 team’s food unit leader, according to Bowman.

Eventually, the members of C-4 and Team 212 grew to appreciate each other and saw that their mission was the same.

“[C-4] decided that they were not going to interfere with our operation, that they were going to give us advice or support if we needed it, but they were going to let us continue our operation,” Bowman explained.

“They said that they travel all over the country doing this, and usually the community that they’re going to is paralyzed and waiting for someone to come help them and rescue them,” Bowman said. “And in our case, we didn’t wait.”

As the operation began to wind down, Team 212 took members of C-4 to a Texas-style steakhouse and a high school football game, and Hefner and her husband are planning to visit some C-4 team members in California over the Christmas holiday.

“Magnolia would have burned to the ground if it were not for them,” Hefner said.

The fire became known as the Riley Road fire, or the Tri-County fire, since it covered portions of Montgomery, Waller and Grimes Counties. Though it was not the most serious blaze Texas faced on Labor Day, the story of the community’s response is remarkable.

Wildfires around Bastrop, a town just over 100 miles west of Magnolia, forced Texas Gov. Rick Perry off the campaign trail and back to his home state to oversee the firefighting effort. The Bastrop County fire became the single most destructive wildfire in Texas history, destroying 1,645 homes.

The fire houses that responded to the Tri-County fire did not budget money to spend 10 days on a wildfire, so they needed a federal reimbursement from FEMA. But to receive emergency funds, they must fill out extensive paperwork documenting their expenses and detailing their work.

It’s a considerable job. An Amarillo, Texas, official testified before Congress in October that city officials had to fill out paperwork for FEMA that was five inches thick. Kelly said that the Montgomery County auditor was helping to apply for aid and that he understands the need to justify taking federal funds, but he is worried about how long it will take to receive the check.

“The problem is, we’ve had several fires that we’re waiting on reimbursement for, and we don’t know how long it’ll take to get that reimbursement,” Kelly told TheDC.

The relief effort brought the community together and built relationships. The members of Team 212 are now good friends.

“I built relationships with people through the fire that I wouldn’t trade for anything, because that’s how precious those people became to me,” Hefner told TheDC.

The ordeal had a particularly powerful effect on Hefner and her husband. Before the job, she had what she described as a “great job” and good income working as a marketing representative for a successful company. She volunteered with Team 212 knowing that she would not benefit professionally from the work.

Calling herself “a Christian woman,” she has three children has been married to her husband for 15 years in December, but she described their relationship as somewhat distant.

“Our relationship was, he’s doing his thing, I’m doing mine. We were just doing things day-to-day,” Hefner said.

Working with her husband in organizing the community relief effort brought clarity back to their relationship and reminded her of their mission as a couple.

“For 10 days we got to focus on the fact that this is what we’re all about. We’re a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “It brought back to my attention that this man who is going down on his knees and praying for people is who I married.”

She told TheDC that she quit her job early in November and sits on the board with Bowman at the YMCA and does public relations work for the school district. She has also been asked to manage a campaign for public office.

“I was going down this lane, and God said, ‘Oh, nope, sorry, you’re going to go this way,’” she said.

Bowman, Hefner and Costello each said they would do it over again if they had to, and unfortunately they may have to. The region continues to experience drought-like conditions — a pattern that could continue for several years.

“It was unbelievable to see people so moved, whereas during Hurricane Katrina people were so paralyzed,” Bowman said. “It was the complete opposite. We just had a spirit that we can take care of this, we can do this, and we did it.”

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