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Volunteers care for fire survivors

Volunteers from nearby churches are collecting donations in one of the few buildings left untouched by the fast-moving wildfire that swept through this small Texas cattle town.

BY CHUCK HUSTMYRE | RINGGOLD, Texas | January 8, 2006

"It was moving so fast it was amazing."

—Lou Ann Shipley

Volunteers from nearby churches are collecting donations in one of the few buildings left untouched by the fast-moving wildfire that swept through this small Texas cattle town on New Year's Day.

The fierce grass fire, one of more than 400 that have broken out in Texas since late December, destroyed more than 30 homes in Ringgold and left dozens of the town's 200-plus residents without a place to live. Many of those left homeless lost everything they owned.

As the fire took aim at Ringgold on Jan. 1, local officials issued a mandatory evacuation order.

Darrell Fuller Sr., 70, ignored the order until the county sheriff forced him from his home. "He probably saved my life," Fuller said. When the fire reached Fuller's property, the flames were leaping six to eight feet in the air, he said. Fuller and his wife were still spraying water on their house when the sheriff made them leave.

The Fullers evacuated to the local fire station. "Fire was everywhere," Fuller said. "I mean you couldn't hardly see to drive down the road."

When Fuller - a part-time welder and mechanic - returned home, he discovered the fire had only slightly damaged his house but had gutted his garage and workshop just a few yards away. Inside the sheet metal building, Fuller's tools and work truck had been destroyed.

On the other side of his house, the fire had flattened a vacant two-story cafe. All that was left standing at the cafe was a metal stairway.

Like many Ringgold residents, Fuller doesn't have insurance. "I couldn't afford it," he said. With only two fire hydrants in town and a part-time, volunteer fire department, property insurance rates are out of reach for many in this small working class town, Fuller explained.

Five days after the fire, as Fuller hauled debris away from his wrecked garage, he pointed toward the pile of rubble. "I'm going to build this son-of-a-gun back," he said.

A neighbor has already called to donate some of the materials Fuller will need to rebuild his garage and workshop.

It's that spirit of cooperation, residents say, that will help the town recover from this disaster.

Almost as soon as Ringgold residents began to return the day after the fire, donations began to flow in. Volunteers set up a collection point inside the gymnasium at Ringgold Elementary School, one of the few undamaged buildings in town.

In a community in which two out of every three vehicles on the road is a pickup truck, volunteers at the school saw a steady stream of trucks backing up to the gym's double doors as neighbors from surrounding towns and those from Ringgold whose houses had survived emptied their homes and garages of anything that might help survivors of the devastating fire.

"These items have just been pouring in from everywhere," said Mary King, a volunteer from neighboring Clay County. King grew up in Ringgold and now lives in Henrietta, a town about 15 miles west. King said she and the other volunteers from nearby towns share a bond with the people of Ringgold. "They are our neighbors," she explained. "It's just people caring for each other."

King is a member of the non-denominational Cowboy Church of Henrietta and is one of eight volunteers from the church who have been collecting and distributing donated items at the elementary school since just after the fire.

Other nearby churches stepped in to help, too, King said. The Church of Christ in Henrietta also sent volunteers and the First Baptist Church of Henrietta opened its doors and served as a shelter for Ringgold residents who had nowhere to stay.

Lou Ann Shipley has worked at Ringgold Elementary as a teacher's aide for 20 years. She said she's never seen anything like the New Year's Day fire that nearly destroyed the town. Yet, despite the devastation the fire wrought, residents are cleaning up and getting on with their lives. School was back in session two days after the fire, Shipley said. "The only day we missed was Monday."

Shipley - an avid gardener - was at home when the fire started. She and a family friend were cleaning out Shipley's garden shed when they noticed a strange smoke in the air. Soon, they knew a fire was coming.

Shipley and her husband started spraying water on their home. Soon the fire reached them. Its leading edge came at an angle. It swept across the back yard first. "It was moving so fast it was amazing," Shipley said. "You could not have outrun it."

Then it reached the front yard. Shipley and her husband retreated to the cab of their pickup truck parked on the gravel driveway. Smoke from the fire made it hard to breathe. "It was so thick that you couldn't see," Shipley recalled. It took 20 to 30 minutes for the fire to pass. When the smoke cleared the Shipley's house was still standing, undamaged.

"I was scared," Shipley said, "but I wasn't as scared as you'd expect to be." It was only later, when she and her husband drove through their town that Shipley said she realized how much damage the fire had caused. "Afterwards is when it's scary," she said.

Wildfires are still burning across Texas and Oklahoma, where officials are urging residents to be extremely cautious and to observe burn bans. Conditions are ripe, officials say, for more fires. "It's pretty bad and the slightest spark can start a major fire," Texas Forest Service spokesman Allan Craft said Sunday.

According to Craft, wildfires in Texas have destroyed 247 homes and consumed nearly 250,000 acres of grassland since December 26.

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