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Sep 22, 2011 | Mark Gwin

Of Love and Loss: Lessons from a Bastrop Firefighter

Fire Mark Gwin
Mark Gwin in his firegear

Mark Gwin is the publisher of the Bastrop Advertiser; member of Calvary Episcopal Church, Bastrop, and volunteer firefighter


This has been a long lesson in humility and hope. That it is not a story of futility and despair, I give thanks to my family, friends, coworkers and community, who have taken a devastating event and made it inspirational. 


My family and I fled from our home on a Sunday afternoon while a gentle dusting of ash fell and the sun glowed red overhead in the thick plume of smoke that covered the sky. Since that day I’ve known moments of grief, but have yet to be lost in it because in every instant I’ve been uplifted by the bravery and kindness of others.


My wife, whose office was destroyed by the Wilderness Ridge Fire in 2008, has wisdom born of experience, and I try to heed her words. “It’s not about letting go, it’s about letting in.”  Opening to the new world in which I find myself, I am starting to learn how dependent I am upon the kindness of others.


The Fire

I’ve been a volunteer fire fighter for five years now, and I’ve never felt as helpless as I did Sunday night watching as the fire, whipped by a vengeful wind, had its way across the Lost Pines. It made the Wilderness Ridge fire look like a birthday candle. As afternoon turned to evening, our response group was focused on structure protection along Hwy 71 at Green Acres Loop. I was immersed in that small corner of the world and couldn’t comprehend how bad the fire was. It was on the trip back from refueling an engine at La Cabana that the truth sunk in. I could see for miles, and the angry red glow on the skyline wasn’t just in front of us – it was south and north, encompassing a full 120 degrees of vision. It was too big to comprehend – even the flames across the highway were too big, too furious, too powerful to brook any sense of being able to put a stop to the fire anytime soon.


I was the first firefighter with Heart of the Pines to lose his home. By Monday morning, when our department was cut loose for rehab, another firefighter’s home was already gone. Our firefighters headed home late Monday morning to catch what rest they could before heading back out. There was no rest to be had, and a short time later they evacuated as the fire closed in on Cottletown Road, along which most of our department lived.  By the end of that day, there were only a few firefighters left who still had a place to call home.  Here’s the crazy, heart-wrenching thing – they were demobilized, released from duty because operations realized what kind of loss our department was experiencing. But not a single one of them stopped.


It might have been too late for their homes, they might have lost their own homes because they were spending their time saving the homes of others, but as long as there were still homes to be saved, they weren’t about to throw in the towel.  They’re fighting the fire still.  The feds can come roaring in on the tail end of the disaster and tell us we “don’t exist,” but there are no finer firefighters anywhere than the women and men of Bastrop County’s volunteer fire departments. Every department, every person, gave and gave and is still giving, doing what they can.  And not without a sense of humor either – the best joke I’ve heard yet was from a firefighter: “We may have lost the Lost Pines, but we got ourselves the Black Forest.”


The Community

If this story were just about the firefighters, it would be something of a tragedy, the brave hero who gave it his all and at best walked away with an empty victory. There can be no doubt that it was drought, fire and wind who wielded power with impunity over the course of those first few days. But this is a community of quiet heroes as well, and they earned the victory for us all with their unflagging support for both the firefighters and the evacuees.  Volunteers are pitching in whenever, wherever; whether it is providing firefighters with food or drink or beginning – and sustaining – the relief efforts to help families get back on their feet. It wasn’t just donations pouring in by the truckload, it was the volunteers organizing and helping to distribute the items to those in need. People opened their hearts, homes and wallets to keep our community going in this difficult time.


My favorite quote is from a Red Cross worker who, coming to the Smithville Recreation Center and seeing the organization and efforts already under way, said, “I’ve never been to a community where we weren’t needed because the locals already had it all going.”


As a personal recipient of more kindness and generosity than I can comprehend or am even comfortable with, I try to remember my wife’s words about “letting it in.” The love is staggering and helps more than I know how to say. It makes it silly to feel sorry for myself, because the loss of our home pales in comparison to the outpouring of love. I can never give back even the half of all that has been given me, but I suppose that is the truth and the beauty of the human condition. Human kindness is grace made flesh.


The Paper

During a disaster of this magnitude, it’s almost as surreal to be working at a newspaper as it is to be out fighting the fires. We’re here to try to disseminate rumors from truth, to offer the hard facts but also collect and share the wonderful stories of bravery and kindness that are too numerous to count.  I’m a volunteer firefighter, but I’m a paid newspaper man, and I acutely feel the responsibility of our newspapers to be the best they can be, particularly in times like these.  So on Tuesday morning I headed back to work, where I learned I have the great blessing of working with some of the finest people anywhere.


I wasn’t the only one who lost my home, and I also wasn’t the only one showing up to work on Tuesday morning. Ginny Pickering was there to open the doors of The Bastrop Advertiser at 8 a.m. even though she, her husband, and her son’s family had all been displaced by the fire and were pretty sure their home had burned. The same can be said of Bastrop’s Assistant Editor Terry Hagerty, who had to abandon his car to the fire because he was too busy taking photographs of our firefighters in action as the blaze began. His home is also gone, but he hasn’t stopped covering the fire for a minute. Between pictures and interviews, he has managed to catch a few hours of sleep at one of the shelters. Our editor Cyndi Wright, Smithville Times Assistant Editor Denis McGinness and reporter Eric Betts have been working non-stop for almost two weeks now, trying to gather the information and bring it to our readers in a way that is meaningful. And I believe that their work and dedication shows through in each issue of the paper, and for their efforts I give my thanks, because no publisher could have asked for half of what they have done, and no publisher could have been prouder of the result.


A prayer

I loved my home, perhaps too much or perhaps not enough. I built it with my own hands over the course of two years for my family. My sons were born there, their height at each birthday was marked on the cedar post in the center of the living room. So much is gone: my journals, the videotapes of the boys, the last letter my grandfather ever wrote me.  But so much is left.


In the Lord’s Prayer, the only material thing we ask for is our daily bread. My family has been given that and so much more.  So I offer thanks.


Thanks that so many found safety in the face of such a ferocious and fast-moving fire.


Thanks for the women and men who fought the fire and all the other responders.


Thanks for the abundant generosity of the community. We are good people, backing up our good intentions with diligent work.


I pray that we grow in kindness, wisdom and generosity. And that, having seen what we are capable of, we nurture it and develop it over the years as we rebuild our community.


Rain and time will restore the earth. Love and work will restore our community.


For more information on the wildfires, visit our blog. Or to donate, click here.