As a resident of tiny Smithville, Texas (between Austin and Houston), this past Labor Day I was able to observe firsthand the largest and most horrific wildfire in Texas history (which ravaged the area) and also its aftermath. The event — labeled the Bastrop County Complex fire — once again gave rise to the stories that restore one’s faith in people: Neighbors as well as citizens from states around the nation responded immediately to the plight of victims. Yet at the same time, the intrusion of the U.S. government agency FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), with its bureaucratic regulations, provided a clear lesson on why federal aid is not the answer in such situations.
The conflagration began in Bastrop County on September 4 when a downed tree sparked a power line. Given that Texas is in the midst of the most severe single-year drought since the 1950s, parched terrain and high temperatures provided the perfect fuel for immediate ignition. High winds spread the blaze at an alarming rate. It jumped the Colorado River and eventually destroyed nearly 1,600 homes and about 34,000 acres. Amazingly, only two people died as a result of the wildfire. The fire burned a six-mile-wide and 16-mile-long swath between Bastrop (the county seat) and Smithville — with major damage in rural areas outside the limits of the two towns.
For whatever reason, it appeared that tiny Smithville (pop. 4,000) was able to organize donation and volunteer efforts somewhat more quickly and efficiently than its troubled neighbors. Donations poured in from across the nation, and firefighters and volunteers didn’t wait for invitations. As a volunteer, your reporter witnessed the remarkable phenomenon of every person seemingly being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. Church kitchens produced hundreds of meals daily for firefighters, volunteers, and evacuees; empty warehouse space was opened to accept, organize, and distribute donations; keys to necessary buildings appeared; and forklifts with operators showed up to transport donations to the appropriate places — all in clockwork fashion.
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