Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bastrop Fire Relief

I successfully finished my MPhil degree in Advanced Chemical Engineering at Cambridge this past August, and I have since moved to Austin, Texas to begin my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas. I was recently placed in a large research group that works primarily on lithium ion batteries, and I'm looking forward to the next four or five years here. My classmates are cool and extremely social (particularly by my warped engineering standards), so I've either willingly or unwillingly been introduced to volleyball, kayaking, ultimate frisbee, food trucks, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, the film "Little Miss Sunshine," Korean kimchi, and a whole host of music (including a bunch from the 90's that I never heard as a child. Turns out the Spice Girls were actually not that bad!).

This morning I traveled to Bastrop to help with cleanup from the recent wildfires. I went as part of a group from the church I have been attending, and once everyone had shuffled, sleepy-eyed, into a crooked circle to exchange greetings upon arrival, I noted that there were around 20 of us total. The group leader handed us waivers to fill out along with dust masks, then waved his arm in the general direction of our designated section of pine forest to clear. At least, it looked like pine forest, until I noticed the twisted pieces of metal rising from the ground. "Yeah, those probably used to be appliances," our leader commented.

Our job for the morning was to sift through the rubble of a trailer home, separate out glass, ceramic, and metal, then stagger down the sandy incline to deposit wheelbarrowfuls of ash and debris by the road. The ceramic and glass showed up more heavily in certain areas, and we started to identify areas of the house by the items we found. The kitchen took a long time to sift through, and we found several mugs still fully intact. Some of the ornaments and knick-knacks indicated that the owner might have had a soft spot for lighthouses. My most baffling find was a pieplate-sized, circular, heavy item with a hole through the middle, almost like a hot serving stone. After finding several more of these in varying shapes, it dawned on me that I had probably located the weight room! The house owner must have been dreaming big but starting small, since the sizes of the weights only got smaller as I dug...
As an engineer, I was fascinated by the materials we encountered and how they had withstood (or not withstood) the heat of the blazing fire. Glass, ceramic, and metals were the only materials that did not crumble upon touch, which made me appreciate the fact that my mother has a fireproof safe in our home. Even cinderblock lost its strength - although visually they seemed unscathed, a child could have broken most of them into pieces. Insulation in certain places was still recognizable (and still probably hazardous as well - does that stuff never die?!). All of the metals were completely rusted, but the ceramics looked like they would be as good as new if washed (and if they weren't in 20 pieces). However, the glass was the most interesting to me. Some glass pieces were shards, as if you had dropped a mirror on the ground, but others had completely melted together to form amorphous globs or twisted shapes (usually colored). I found myself thinking that Dr. Price from Oklahoma State University would have been able to appreciate - and explain - the difference.

Amidst friendly conversations, men jockeying with the boys for who could take the most loads of debris to the curb, and calls of "who has the bucket for glass?", our group leader pointed out features of the site that displayed how the fire grew and traveled. The site adjacent to ours was also burnt to the ground, but between the two lots was a row of green trees. "The fire just jumped from one site to the other. The network of tree roots in this area is so extensive that some say the roots themselves were on fire, so the fire could travel underground without even touching the tops of the trees." Bastrop is southeast of central Austin, and estimates say that the fires covered anywhere from 25,000 to 34,000 acres and destroyed around 550 homes. Included in the devastation was Bastrop State Park, which could take 50 years to restore.

The jaws of fire leave little behind, and I was certainly humbled by how utterly our material wealth can be reduced to nothing overnight. How secure we feel when we look at all of our possessions! Yet ultimately we are just deceiving ourselves...A $100 bottle of wine, an elaborate home entertainment system, and a fine shoe collection are all enjoyable (and not necessarily wrong), but where are we putting our time, effort, and money first and foremost? Paul talks about building our lives on the foundation of Christ: we all have the same foundation, but we each choose how we build upon it. "Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Corinthians 3:12) I have now seen that the majority of what we think we own will burn, thus qualifying as wood, hay, and straw. The things that remain then must be of a different sort of stuff entirely (as C.S. Lewis would say), and I hope that God will reveal to me how to pursue those things. Let's be the kind of people who are left with more than a pile of rubble, melted glass, rusty utensils, and frayed electronic wires when the judgment fire of God sweeps through our lives.

While the wildfires were raging: photo courtesy of  
Ariel view of part of Bastrop after the fires: photo courtesy of the Texas Forest Service facebook page