Fla. Baptists respond as wildfires sweep state

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Thursday, May 17, 2007 (12 years ago)

STARKE, Fla. (BP)--Responding to raging wildfires Florida Baptists in the past weeks have opened their doors to fire suppression crews and residents of their communities, providing shelter, food and staging facilities.

While more than 163,000 acres have burned in more than 225 fires throughout Florida, the firestorm -- fueled by lightening strikes and arsonists in severe drought conditions -- forced evacuations and closed down major highways, causing traffic jams throughout Mother's Day weekend. Florida Baptist Convention leadership is calling for churches to pray for rain and has requested that congregations set aside Sunday, May 27, as a "Day of Prayer for Rain."

Peppering 57 of the 67 counties in Florida, the fires, spewing acrid smoke into otherwise mostly clear skies, are being fed by unusually dry air and wind gusts related to a number of storms moving through various parts of the state. Anticipated rainfall has come up short in areas directly affected. At Hope Baptist Church in Starke, Fla., in a community where two large fires converged to char more than 18,000 acres, more than 350 firefighters and other public safety personnel and leaders worked out of the church round-the-clock for nearly a week to contain fires in the area.

Dozens of fire trucks, forestry bulldozers, tanker trucks and other fire-suppression related machinery and workers were entering and leaving a large unpaved lot just west of the church, with Salvation Army feeding vans, Florida State Highway Patrol and other command center vehicles and media trucks on the east side.

The largest and "most sturdy" building in the immediate area, the church has never staged such a massive effort, although it was used as a shelter for some families during fires in 1998 and in 2003 -- and for hurricane relief efforts in 2004 -- according to the church's senior pastor, Eugene "Gene" Coons.

"We've never had this kind of an organization," Coons told the Florida Baptist Witness May 10. "You're looking at practical Christianity instead of merely professing Christianity."

Hope Baptist got involved when members of the Theressa Volunteer Fire Department in Starke first responded to the Bradford County fire May 7. More than half of their personnel -- whose station is about a block away -- are members of the church.

Firefighter wives and families joined with other members of the congregation to immediately begin feeding and housing fire-suppression personnel and those displaced by the smoke and flames.

"They saw the fire and knew it was going to get out of hand and they started cooking," Coons said.

Utilizing the church's large kitchen and walk-in refrigerator, a rotating crew cooked 24/7 to serve meals in the fellowship hall where round tables seat up to 400 people.

At one end of the room, long tables offered lip balm, toiletries and other emergency care supplies. On each round table was a small stack of "Coon" tracts -- the plan of salvation presented in the words of Pastor Coons. Outside the church doors were pallets of bottled water and chests full of ice. Throughout the weeklong ordeal, the church received donations of food from the Salvation Army, individuals and area businesses.

"It's been a community effort, but primarily led by our church," Coons said. "Our people are just doing what comes natural for people who walk with the Lord."

In a growing, mostly rural community between Gainesville and Jacksonville, the church has about 600 regulars with 300-400 in the service on Sundays. Coons said the description of the community as "rural" doesn't really account for the caring attitude of his congregation.

"It's not a city/country thing; it's a Jesus-or-no-Jesus thing," Coons said. "Christians care. There's no way you can have the Holy Spirit living in you and not care about people.

"Jesus cares about people and if we love Jesus, we love people," Coons continued.

Gesturing at the carpet, Coons acknowledged the church's facilities will have gotten a workout with weary firefighters tracking in soot and dirt in order to pick up a hot meal. He has no regrets, however.

"These firefighters are not only saving properties by putting their lives on the line, but they're saving lives," Coons said of the personnel, many of whom are in volunteer fire departments. "These folks don't have to be here and we are just grateful that they've come and left their families and their jobs."

A byproduct of the crisis for his own congregation is the camaraderie developed as members work together serving others, Coons said. Although the church does not currently have a trained Florida Baptist Disaster Relief team, Coons said he thinks it's ironic they had already signed up for a training session in May.

"Now we will have twice as many go," he predicted.

Outside, Coons walked around encouraging firefighters and making himself available to pray with them.

Starke Sheriff Bob Molner, a member of Madison Street Baptist Church in Starke, called Hope Baptist a "great spiritual fortress" in Bradford County and said he is not surprised by the church's efforts.

"I think a lot of the fire suppression and public safety personnel that responded to this incident have absolutely seen a side of godly people that they may not have seen before if they don't go to church themselves," Molner told the Witness. "Undoubtedly this has been a great witness for the Lord."

Outside the facility May 10, crews were working to find "hot spots" and problem areas left after earlier efforts to contain the fire.

David Griffis, a founder of the Theressa Volunteer Fire Department and member of Hope Baptist who was on a tour of the area where fires had raged heavily, told the Witness that officials suspected arson as the cause.

"Look at how the wind is blowing again," Griffis said, stopping in an area at the edge of Little Lake Santa Fe in Bradford County where nearly two dozen of the most expensive estates are perched lakeside.

Dirty air lingered throughout the area -- where a dirt road is the barrier between acres of burned forest and the preserved homes. Spots of charred grass were evidence of a large wall of fire held back by diligent crews working from fire trucks parked in each of the driveways, according to area resident Ron Blake.

Flanked by the charred ruins of a forest which once grew to the rear of their workshop across the street from their home, Sondra Blake marveled at the efforts that spared their structure, but completely destroyed a large shed about 100 feet away. She also pointed to the house next door, where the fire had burned through part of the dock, devoured a sail boat and danced through the grasses right up to the back door -- stopping just short of destroying the wooden residence.

"It's a miracle; that's all you can say," she told the Witness.


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