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Wildfires Reveal A Small Texas Town’s Resilience

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BASTROP (AP) – Elizabeth Tipton and her family have been living in a hotel since the Labor Day fires took their home in the ColoVista subdivision. In a few weeks, when their federal temporary housing assistance runs out, she and her husband and their three children will move into a camper on their property a gift from strangers.

Some people who know their neighbors – Tipton still isn’t clear on the connection – happened to have a camper. Next thing they knew, they owned the camper, which these strangers had outfitted with new bedding, towels, kitchen utensils, cookware, plates, a slow cooker, even coloring books and crayons for their three children.

“We don’t even know them,” said Tipton, 35. “They’re not even from Bastrop. I was just … wow. Who does that? It blows me away.”

For all of the things the fires burned away – the homes, the pickups, the memories, the forest – the people who lost the most seem determined to focus on what they didn’t lose. It’s the people who live here and the connections that they’ve woven over the years that have enabled Bastrop County to face the state’s worst wildfires with a let’s-get-on-with-life resilience that seems to permeate the community.

“There’s absolutely no benefit in wallowing,” Tipton said. “You just have to keep going. We have so much support from family, from community, from friends – it’s just incredible.”

Everyone who lost something seems to have a story about how friends and family and total strangers have rallied to their aid.

Jackie Bagwell has seen it from the front desk of the Bastrop Inn, where all 32 rooms have been full since Sept. 4 – many of them sheltering families whose homes burned.

“I’ve had more people donate clothes, time, food,” Bagwell said. “For three weeks, four weeks, we had a church that brought breakfast, lunch and dinner to these people. They’d knock on every door and ask everyone if they wanted food.”

Kathy Bayes has seen it from her insurance office in downtown Bastrop. In the days after the fires, one customer after another came to her agency to file claims on their destroyed homes. Bayes said they all seemed more concerned about whether her home had survived (it had).

“They were worried about me, when they knew their own house was gone,” said Bayes, who opened her company in Bastrop 14 years ago. “It was just a good experience for me to see how wonderful these people were.”

Chuck Christian has seen it too. He and his wife were riding their motorcycles near Houston when the fires began approaching their home in Circle D. A friend rushed to Christian’s home, kicked in the back door and saved their four dogs. When they returned to find their home burned to the ground, his cellphone started ringing with offers of shelter, he said. “I had six to eight offers of houses and rooms. And I have four dogs, so they were willing to accept me and my wife and four dogs,” he said.

That’s happened throughout the county. Out of about 2,300 households eligible for temporary shelter money in Bastrop County, only about 18 percent have actually used it, said Ray Perez, a spokesman with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s probably one of the best I’ve seen in terms of a community rallying and helping themselves to recover as quickly as they can,” Perez said.

In the blackened stands of trees, people who lost their homes talk in reverent tones about what their community has done for them. All the free food and water donated by Wal-Mart and H-E-B, all the volunteers showing up to get it to fire victims. Christian remembers a group of Home Depot employees pulling up in a rented truck and handing out water, snacks and tools to people who were sifting through the remains of their homes. The free pancake breakfasts at Chili’s. The Texas Baptist Men pulling up with their trailers and starting to clear rubble from lots.

In the bank parking lot, they’re collecting Halloween costumes and candy for the kids who lost their homes – and their trick-or-treat neighborhoods. On Main Street, shop windows are covered with fliers for fundraisers and donation drives. Dinners. Silent auctions. Best ball golf tournaments. Live music all day. Bring your checkbooks.

“I hear those stories everywhere I go,” said Mike Fisher, Bastrop County’s emergency coordinator. “I’ve been involved in disaster relief almost my whole career, and it’s not always that way; some communities don’t respond like that.”

For Tipton and her family, the generosity didn’t stop with the camper. Tipton’s sister, who lives in Georgia, posted a note on her Facebook page about Tipton losing her house in the fires. Her sister’s friends responded with a flood of donations – beds; furniture; kitchen items, down to the waffle iron and cheese grater; towels, shower curtains and a soap dish for a bathroom. Her sister rented a truck and drove it all to Texas, where they stored the load at their grandmother’s house. It’ll stay there until they build their new place.

Tipton said they didn’t have insurance, and they’d just used most of their savings to do some remodeling and put in a new air conditioner.

FEMA approved them for assistance and gave them enough money to start a building fund (Perez said the agency is giving individuals up to $30,200 for their losses from the fires). So they’ll start saving again, and when they have enough to buy the materials, a church group has already offered to donate the labor to rebuild their home.

“I’m going to design the kitchen the way I want it, and I’m going to have the right amount of storage space,” Tipton said. She sounds upbeat, excited. And most of all, grateful.

She remembers being a teenager in Bastrop, when she thought the place was boring and couldn’t wait to leave. “I tried to leave – I left like six times – but then I came back,” she said.

That was 11 years ago. She got a job at a local waste disposal company. Started a family. The fire – actually, everything that has happened since the fire – is just confirmation that coming back was the right decision.

“It’s just an incredible thing to see the heart of people coming together,” Tipton said. “I’ll never leave. This is my home. I can absolutely say I’m proud to live in Bastrop.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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