Dear friends & family,
I've sat down to write this email three different times, and even though I've written a press release, been interviewed, and sent many messages on behalf of Camp Wilderness Ridge over the past four weeks, when I start to write on a personal level about how wildfire affected our home, ministry, and place of business, I can't seem to figure out how to frame the message. This time I'm just going to start typing and see what comes out.
By now you've probably heard about the Hidden Pines Fire
A little after noon Tuesday, October 13th, Claire called to tell me that she saw smoke near Buescher State Park. I looked out the camp office door and saw smoke rising to the east. The wind was blowing south, but it was difficult to tell how far away the fire was, so I hopped on the gator (4-wheel vehicle) and drove down the trails out our East entrance to visit our neighbor, Steven, who runs the Stengl UT Lost Pines Bio Research Station. He was just returning from the eastern fence line of his property, and told me that the fire about five acres on the property next to him (the Lueke land), moving south, and that there were fire fighters on the scene trying to contain it. I asked him if he needed help moving anything away from his property as a preventative action, and he said he was good to go.
This is everything we have left from our home, just what we packed when we evacuated. #HiddenPinesFire -- But our treasure is in heaven, not with stuff, and #Godisgood and has supplied all our needs to the point where we're able to bless others as good stewards of His resources. No reason not to trust Him. Here @claireymcturner is itemizing what made it out so we can compare what we packed with what we should have packed and make the ultimate fire evac checklist. Honestly, this experience may turn me into one of those "preppers." ;-)
I returned to the office and monitored fire reports for a couple of hours, then as the fire continued to grow and containment was minimal, advised Claire to return home so we could pack a few things just in case. We grabbed three days worth of clothes, the pack-and-play and miscellaneous baby-care items, toiletries, a box of photos, and a file box. It was basically like packing for a weekend with family, with a few sentimental items and our legal documents. By the time we finished packing, the smoke had gotten thicker at camp, and Becca was coughing. We decided to go ahead and leave until the fire was taken care of. Before we got into the car, I asked Claire, "If we never get to come back here again, do we have what we want from the house?" We went through a mental check-list and agreed we were ready to let anything else go if needed, but I think we both this was just good practice for a real emergency and that we'd be back in the house in a couple of days, maybe with a little smoke damage.
That first night, we stayed with my aunt & uncle, Sherri & Jeff Marx, in Cedar Park (north of Austin), and kept up with our friends still at camp and the fire reports. In the morning, the fire was much larger (over 1,000 acres), but now well south of camp and many resources were fighting it. We did a little shopping since we were in town and then started to head back to Bastrop, but then heard that Park Road 1C was being evacuated. The wind had shifted to the north-west, and the fire was moving directly toward our home. We prayed, knowing that God is in control of ALL things, and started talking about the fact that this fire might actually hit us.
By midnight Wednesday night (October 14), we had received word from a firefighter friend that camp had indeed been hit and it didn't look good for any of the staff homes to survive. Claire and I stepped outside to have a talk where we thanked God for a few specific things:
- We are alive.
- Becca Riley is safe.
- We have a dog and a chinchilla.
- We had time to pack things to get through the next few days.
- God is good all the time. He is in control, and we should not be worried.
We called to let our families know, made a couple of posts on social media, and then turned our phones off and went to bed. The next morning, we awoke to a new reality.
Later, we were allowed back onto the property, we found that basically nothing was salvageable from our home and from the homes of the other two staff families. We sorted through the ashes, but only found memories. Here's a few things I find my heart tied to more than I'd like to admit:
- My photos and videos over the last 15 years. For some reason, I thought to grab the camp's media computer, but not my own, which was right next to it, or my external backup. I'm not sure how I could recover or find files our wedding & honeymoon, family photos, or trips to the mountains and the other side of the world.
- 30+GB of music that I spent a lot of time and money acquiring on previously mentioned hard drive. Man, I am a walking ad for cloud back up services...
- My awesome library. I loved my Christian theology and biblical study books mostly from College, old editions and first printings of great American literature, outdoors skill texts and adventure non-fiction including issues #14 - #51 of Alpinist, my favorite magazine.
- A 1981 Olympus OM-2, my first camera, which was given to me in pristine condition by my grandfather (he bought it and never really used it for 20 years). It had no automatic controls and as a result taught me how to actually take photographs. I know I could buy another one of these on ebay, but I'm very grateful for the service provided by the dependable little guy, and his company on my first season in Yellowstone NP and through college.
We're in what I suspect is an unusual situation, because in addition to the personal part of the loss (our home), the office that I loved walking to every day (our work), and the place God has called us to serve (our ministry), is all gone (for now). Not to mention that this was a place of incredible beauty within the region, where creation just screams God's glory. Not that those things won't come back, but it is hard to lose so much in one day.
In the end, the Hidden Pines Fire burned for about two weeks, destroying 4,560 acres and 60 homes.
God was (and is) always working
Immediately after the fire, it became apparent to us that God had been preparing us for this moment for a long time. Claire had felt this compelling feeling to let go of "stuff" in general and had what we called "the urge to purge". In the month leading up to the fire, God kept drawing me over and over to Philippians 4, where Paul talks a lot about having his contentment based on God instead of what can be observed in this world. It's been kind of weird, because we've cried a little, but for the most part we've felt that it was just ...stuff, and we've been really excited about what God is doing.
Look, this isn't the first "bad" thing that has happened to us. God has carried us through a number of hard situations both in our individual lives and since we've been married. We've been immersed in living by faith since we joined the ministry of Camp Wilderness Ridge three years ago. God has always supplied our needs, and we have no reason not to believe He will in this situation too. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy though.
We're broken people living in a broken world, and it shouldn't be surprising that some times are harder than others. In those moments -- maybe even more so in those moments -- we're still called to be Christ to others through the way we think & act.
When our staff team got together a few days after the fire, we acknowledged that God would use this situation for His glory, and we could choose to be a part of that or not. And here's the cool part: God already HAS used the fire for His glory. He opened the hearts of family and friends who normally aren't open to spiritual conversations for our team to talk about the Gospel. Where the normal posts I make on the Camp Wilderness Ridge Facebook Page get 300 to 500 views, the posts relating to the Hidden Pines Fire and the staff's responses got up to 15,250. People from all over the country read news articles and watched videos of our team testifying to God's goodness. A friend who is a missionary in a remote part of Asia called me because he heard about it from his dad, who doesn't know us, but heard about it on the news. Pretty cool.
From the camp side of things, here's the bullet points:
- Much of camp was lost. On the 1320 Property, we lost the Office, Cafe, Kitchen, activities storage, Tile Showerhouse, Oaks Cabins village, Pool, Marksmanship Area, maintenance barn, tractors, and about 90 out of 118 acres of pines. The Camper Entrance gate & road, Welcome Center, Wood Showerhouse, Gaga Pit, Pickleball Court, Human Foosball, Pines Cabins village, half of Primitive Camp, and both camp busses were spared. On the 855 (original) Property, the well house, canoes, lifeguard station, a storage barn with bathrooms, and one RV were lost. The new Lake Pavilion, High Ropes Tower, Giant Swing, Ber Kletke Gazebo, and some of the RV sites were spared.
- The ministry of Camp Wilderness Ridge to teach young men about Jesus Christ and raise them up to be servant leaders through the outdoors WILL CONTINUE.
- The ministry of Camp Wilderness Ridge is more than a place.
- We've been through this before. In 2011, Camp Wilderness Ridge lost most of its buildings and land to the Bastrop Complex Fire. The Board declared the same things after that fire, and we had spent the last four years relocating, rebuilding, and doing ministry. Oddly enough, it was one week before that fire when I interviewed for a position at CWR, and we walked away thinking we'd like to do something else with our lives. It was volunteering almost every weekend with the recovery and continuation of ministry that really drew us in.
- We have received offers from multiple camps in the region to help us facilitate the churches we already had on the camp calendar through the fall and spring retreat seasons. Currently, we're operating at Camp Tejas in Giddings, TX.
- The Board of Directors is looking to find suitable wilderness property in Bastrop County that could be acquired by the end of the year, and built on to hold Summer Camp 2016. This is a HUGE undertaking, but God led us through it before Summer 2012, and we believe it can happen again.
- We'll be launching a Wilderness Ridge Adventures program, which will take young men on multi-day trips to explore, enjoy, and learn from God's creation in other wild areas off-site. I'm particularly excited about this part, as it's been my dream for many years, and I'm getting to develop the program.
- Camp will have permanent staff housing in place by January 2017.
How can you help?
Every time someone says something like, "So, I guess you guys are homeless now?" I cringe a little, because I know that MY "homeless" reality is heck of a lot different than what ACTUAL homelessness looks like. We're even way better off than some of the other Hidden Pines Fire victims. We've consistently had incredible shelter, food, emotional/spiritual support, and offers for resources from many, many different places. Again, like Paul, we want to say "It was kind of you to share in my trouble." (Phil 4:14)
Within a day of losing our home, we had a GoFundMe page set up for us, and gifts and kind notes have poured in from distant relatives, friends of friends, and even perfect strangers. The GoFundMe page closes in a couple of days, so if you'd like to give there, click here.
You can also give through Camp Wilderness Ridge, which is a 501c3 non-profit organization, and you'll get a receipt for the tax-deductible gift by going to www.wildernessridge.com/give and look for our names in the dropdown on the Donation button.
One huge blessing has been the renter's insurance policy we carried, which is not only helping replace some of our "stuff" (though, it's a huge pain in the patukus to write out the list of our lost items to claim), but also putting us up in an apartment until camp builds permanent staff housing again. While I am the kind of guy who loves living out of a backpack and was always particularly fond of where Jesus said "the foxes have their holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head," I think it will be a huge blessing to Claire to have somewhere to nest again. We're moving in on Friday -- Claire is coordinating volunteers to help us with the move on Friday (11/13) and Saturday (11/14), as I will be at Camp Tejas helping with Hutto Bible Church Father/Daughter Retreat. You can email Claire at email@example.com.
If you'd like to get on the CWR volunteer list to be updated on upcoming projects and needs, please go to www.wildernessridge.com/serve.
Keep praying for:
- The CWR staff families to get settled into semi-permanent housing, and have their daily needs met.
- The CWR staff families to continue working through the spiritual/emotional challenges of this experience. To keep our eyes on what's true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8).
- The CWR Board of Directors to find suitable land in Bastrop County, and to have God's vision of what Camp Wilderness Ridge looks like in 1, 5, 10, or 25 years.
- Volunteers to fill the huge needs coming soon once we begin the recovery process.
- Healing for our neighbors who have also lost much in this fire, especially those who were affected by the 2011 fire. That Camp Wilderness Ridge would be a source of comfort and a light for Truth in this situation.
God is good, all the time
All the time, God is good.