Pastors Michael Wycoff and Chris Hurta
Pastor Mike Wycoff: My name is Mike Wycoff and I am the senior pastor at St. Luke’s on the Lake Episcopal Church, which is located just outside of Steiner Ranch and I’m also a resident of Steiner Ranch.
Pastor Chris Hurta: My name is Chris Hurta and I’m the campus pastor of Hill Country Bible Church.
KUT News: What were you doing that day?
Wycoff: On Sunday morning, of course, we have our services and a member of the choir, who is a retired fireman, said to me, “Father Mike, this is going to be a really dangerous day.” I asked him why and he said because of the winds being so high and the temperature and all of the factors. And I thought about that all day. Then, when I was at the gym, a fireman came to the front door and said you all need to leave the gym because the fires are very close by, right over the 620 is where they began and I remember driving home and seeing cars all ready to leave. As soon as I got home, all of the landlines received a phone call from the Sheriff’s Office to evacuate immediately.
KUT News: Wow.
Wycoff: It was just within 20 minutes. It was just like that.
KUT News: What were you thinking?
Wycoff: I was thinking that I better see where these fires are and if I needed to leave or not and I decided not to leave.
KUT News: Why?
Wycoff: Because I might be needed by staying there and also because all of my family was already away. My kids were in college and my wife was in another part of the city. So, I was thinking about staying in case I could do some good and I’m glad I did because of the things that came about where I was glad I was where I was.
KUT News: Over at the church; interesting. We’re going to come back to that. Tell me where you were?
Hurta: Well, to back up just for a second. We had just moved into Steiner on Friday, so if you can imagine our garage is filled with boxes; our house is filled with boxes, just starting to, you know, get the basics out of boxes to just live and start our new beginning here and on Sunday I, you know, led our church through two services, had come home. It was probably around 1:00 I got home. It was lunchtime. I had not – I had heard sirens, my daughter is nine, I have two daughters, but she is pretty frightened by sirens so we were trying to console her and the next thing we knew, we started seeing smoke. We looked out our front door and saw big black plumes of smoke and it wasn’t 30 minutes that ashes began to fall in our neighborhood. So whatever was coming was very quick, it was a very windy day, obviously, and I could tell the smoke was blowing our way so the fire was coming and we knew no one in the neighborhood at this point, so we didn’t –
KUT News: Yeah, you guys just moved in Friday.
Hurta: Yeah, you know, looking back I had a little regret of not knocking on doors and making sure people were fine, but honestly my daughter was terrified. We grabbed a couple of items, threw them in our car and we were about to leave when the fire trucks came through with bull horns saying evacuate immediately. You don’t have any time to take anything; go. And so, we left our neighborhood and thought well, we may not see our stuff, unfortunately, I mean, we were renting this house so we thought that house would be gone and all our stuff in it and, you know, gratefully that wasn’t the case, but not so for others who lost everything.
KUT News: Wow. You know, what’s funny is that everybody I talked to said they were aware of the precursors, the way you said somebody told you about the wind and then I spoke to Greg Lawson, the Sheriff’s deputy and he said he told his wife about the wind and you noticed the wind. Is that, was that the biggest, sort of, hint that something was going to happen, you think?
Hurta: Well, I remember hearing like high fire alert, you know, because of the drought obviously and high fire alert because of the wind, I think, it was 30 to 40 mile an hour gusts at times and so, yeah, there were certainly signals, but, you know, like anything in life, you never think it’s going to happen to you, you know, it’s always someone else. But that day, you know, it was very personal.
KUT News: Wow, interesting; so, a firefighter went to knock on your place at the gym and you said, I’m going to stay. Oh, when did you start realizing that you actually, you were going to start mobilizing for yourself, you know?
Wycoff: Well, one of the reasons is Chris’s home is really close to the fire; where I lived in a different part of Steiner, it wasn’t an immediate concern and I’m glad I stayed, for two reasons. The first was there were a lot of people going up and down our street wondering what was going on and since I was out in the street talking to people, I was able to say here is a mandatory evacuation. I’m afraid a lot of people didn’t know about the evacuation because maybe they weren’t at home when they received the call from the Sheriff’s Office on their landline.
KUT News: Right.
Wycoff: So, I just decided to keep an eye on it and stay and I’m glad I did because some of my parishioners up at the church knew I was there and we were able to communicate a lot on our cell phone and so, for example, the rest of that day and into the next day, I would make little clandestine trips into backyards feeding animals, trying to assuage concerns of people who were worried about their pets and that was good, except for two people, I couldn’t save their pets because their houses were destroyed. But, again, they were able to get that information sooner rather than later. So, I sort of consider that my small contribution.
KUT News: Were you sort of locked into the community then, at that point in time? You said clandestine.
Wycoff: Well, there was some traffic problems and that’s interesting because later on we can talk about how those are being addressed, but that was one reason why I didn’t want to leave immediately, because I knew I would be waiting at one of our two exits for a long time and then I just decided, well after a few hours, I still didn’t get a sense of imminent danger so I just stayed.
KUT News: Wow, what did you tell your daughter, I mean your nine year old daughter who was afraid of the sirens?
Hurta: Yeah, I just, you know, I try to be honest with my kids. I don’t try to, you know, overprotect them and tell them that life is always going to work out great. I mean, I didn’t preach a message to her, but I said honey we’re together, we’re going to be fine, we’re in the car, we’ve got our belongings and what we can take with us and the firemen will do their job and we will trust God. So, you know, she was, that helped a little bit, but you can imagine a nine year old, you know, another fire truck goes by and now we’re stuck in traffic that Mike just mentioned for quite a long time and, as we’re watching behind us, the hill that we were on to leave Steiner Ranch, we could see now how aggressive the fire was and it was burning toward our neighborhood pretty quickly and so, in my mind, I was thinking the house is gone, the neighborhood is going to be gone. I didn’t say that to my daughter, but you know, as any parent does, you try to be positive and encouraging and hopeful.
KUT News: How did she react?
Hurta: You know, she eventually settled when I started saying, well, because, you know, the next question is where are we going?
KUT News: Oh yeah. Where did y’all go?
Hurta: We ended up going to my parent’s home who live in Avery Ranch. So, that was a good thing. You know, hey let’s divert the attention to we’re going to Grandma’s house, Grandpa’s house and we’re going to have a cookout. So, you know, that helped a little bit, but all night long into the several days, there was great concern from her specifically, she is pretty high emotional anyway, but you know, are the people okay? She’s very worried, are the firemen okay? Really more about that then is our stuff okay, she is very compassionate and I appreciate that about her.
KUT News: Everybody talks about what would you take if you had to? What did you end up taking?
Hurta: Yeah, you know, up until that day I had never had an emergency pack of any kind and I do now because it could happen again. So, but we were took were a box of our important papers, documents, checkbook, all that kind of, you know, any financial stuff, some clothes and that was really about it, but I will tell you that fight went on within me of a little of materialism, of loss of stuff. I had a truck and I didn’t fill it up. I drove away and I went oh I should’ve taken this and I should’ve put more of this in, I leave my several hundred dollar bike. I left all my rod and reels and I left, you know, we could have brought more jewelry. So, part of that was a little bit of my lesson is be prepared and the other part is, you know, at the end of the day that stuff really doesn’t matter and it would not have made me feel any better if my truck had been filled with stuff, knowing that other people lost everything.
KUT News: You guys played a huge part for the community.
Wycoff: People who were already outside of Steiner Ranch who are members of the church, they came to the church, both before the police closed down Steiner, as well as afterwards. They were able to get access. What that did was just be the responders for an area that became a staging for not just the police and the media but for people trying to find out answers. See Chris was blessed that he was able to go somewhere, but not everyone was and so, not knowing how long it was, we were able to immediate recruit for water and food.
KUT News: How did ya’ll do that?
Wycoff: Well, we’ve done it before as a congregation going to other places, like Hurricane Katrina and we’ve made eight or ten different trips to tornado areas in Alabama and Mississippi so it’s sort of already in our DNA to respond in certain ways when there is a crisis.
KUT News: Were you there when they started having those sort of press conference information updates? What was it like to watch that?
Wycoff: Well, I’m just glad we were there because the press needed some area and we were able to provide it for him.
KUT News: Was it weird to listen to how news is done and how information is, you know, sent out?
Wycoff: Well, it’s funny because, here is an interesting thing, until the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse came, which has been a wonderful addition to our neighborhood, our church’s parking lots were commonly used by the media for any weather related issues regarding Lake Travis, the height of the water, for example. So, we’re always used to having media and when they come, we just open our doors, if they need to use the restrooms that’s fine.
KUT News: That’s great.
Wycoff: I think that one of the things Chris was talking earlier about the things that enter your mind and one of the things, because we are both pastors, is for me was we are so used to being with people in times of crisis, a little bit of that is our training, a lot of that is our experience and so I could tell that what was behind my decision to stay and to help in any way was much of the decision when we go to the hospital in the middle of the night in a crisis and we just sort of have a little bit of experience in being comfortable in that role. So, I think, to some extent, I wasn’t worried, maybe I should have been, but also, I’m used to doing this week in and week out.
Hurta: Yeah, I think, just to echo on that, once I got my family to Avery Ranch where my parents live, you know, as a pastor, I couldn’t just stay at the house. I now went back to Steiner Ranch to see about the people that I know and then I was discovering that a lot of displaced that didn’t have a place to go ended up at Vandergrift High School, so I ended up there all night long, just trying to console families and just pray with people and encourage them. Just the ministry of presence.
KUT News: What do you tell them; what do you say; how do you stay strong; how do you do that?
Hurta: Well, you know for the ones that I knew, that relationship is pretty easy and we can engage pretty quickly. For the ones I don’t know, walking up to a stranger sitting at a cafeteria table that they thought in a million years they’d be sitting at on a Sunday night is that they would be at their home eating dinner with their family and now they are wondering if their house is going to be, you know, left, is kind of just a slow introduction of myself and just that I’m in this with you; I’m a Steiner Ranch resident; can we talk about any needs that you have that I could potentially meet here. Are you okay with food, with water, any other concerns we can just dialogue about. The power of prayer with people, you know, I don’t ask if they; it seems like no one cares at those moments if you’re a Baptist, a Methodist, a Hindu, a Christian, it’s like, yeah, pray. I want prayer; I’ll take prayer. So, that was a lot of less of me talking, to be honest with you, and just let’s talk to God about what’s going on.
KUT News: What was the biggest need, I mean, with the people that you guys met with that day? I mean, what did they say they wanted the most or needed the most?
Hurta: I think the biggest strain was the unknown. The days of the unknown about my livelihood and my future; that created a lot of fear, a lot of angst in a lot of people and there was no way to solve that, there is no answer I can give to people; that was going to have to come from the authorities after they’ve assessed everything, but I think that was an issue. If we could just divert, almost like my daughter, you know, hey we’re going to go to Grandma’s house and have a cookout. So, let’s don’t focus all of our attention on what we’re going to lose; in some ways it was, hey tell me about your family, tell me about your kids, tell me what kind of vacation, you know, it’s diverting conversation to ways that are hopeful and positive and encouraging, you know, and not loss. If that’s going to come, it’s going to come and we’ll deal with that then, but no one knew, you know, you didn’t know where you stood for a long time.
KUT News: Waiting.
Wycoff: Well, we live so much of our lives taking things for granted and something like this happens and we really do realize, by the grace of God, what is important in our lives and it is our loved ones. Not our possession, but who loves us and who we love. Chris and I have a friend who is a pastor in another part of town who said, you know, maybe it would be really good for my congregation if we had a fire in our neighborhood because that would really humble ourselves and, you know, bring us closer together. Now, that’s completely in jest and no one would wish that, but I like the spirit behind it.
KUT News: That was that weekend. How long did people stay at the church and how long did you guys serve them?
Wycoff: Well, they were there; I didn’t leave Steiner Ranch until Monday afternoon, which was full into the second day and we noticed that they were there until Tuesday. So, they would be there until dark and then they would come back both Monday morning and Tuesday morning bright and early. It wasn’t until Tuesday after lunch that we were allowed to go back in and so the last sort of official thing we did was have a dinner in our parish hall that Tuesday night because people, many families weren’t in a position to cook.
KUT News: What was the mood like?
Wycoff: The mood was very, very sweet; it was very supportive. We had ten different vendors bring food from HEB to the BBQ places nearby and they were just bringing food and we had so many supplies because people knew that people were going to be thirsty and hungry.
KUT News: Did they come and openly bring them and donate it. Did somebody makes calls or –
Wycoff: No one called; they just came and unloaded their SUV’s with all these wonderful goods, yeah.
KUT News: What did you do afterwards, I mean, after people were now going back to their homes?
Wycoff: Well, because there were so many fires in the area, we were already beginning to make inquiries as to how the Steiner Ranch communities could serve others. That’s the wonderful spirit in that neighborhood and I can remember loading many supplies in big vehicles to go immediately to Bastrop and so, it was just a season where it’s very intense and then when it dissipates, you take your time, talon and treasure to another location and, of course, Bastrop was a much greater crisis and tragedy then Steiner.
Hurta: That first day when we were allowed to come back in, I was allowed to actually be in the neighborhoods before the families, you know, were allowed to come in. So, I was waiting for the families to come in to be just a presence so as they see, you know, the ashes and the destruction, you know, that someone is there. So, that was a great privilege actually, those are hard moments but sacred moments in a pastor’s life to be trusted in those kind of moments with people. But I echo what Mike said here in that the display of love and tangible, you know, love of water and food and our churches came together, Mike’s church, you know, St. Luke’s, Hill Country Bible Church, ACF all came together and immediately volunteers started going down every single neighborhood, picking up all the refuge, all the trash, garbage from the rotten food that was left in people’s refrigerators. So, we took that, you know, worked with HOA and had volunteers do that, but that spirit of helping others, we had so much excess of water and food. You’re right, Mike, the only way to really help others was to give this to people more needy then ourselves and I think, honestly, if Steiner had not been hit with the fire, would we have seen that display toward Bastrop at that level, no. No, we wouldn’t, but you know, we’re living it and like anything in life, when you live it, you experience, you have deeper compassion and ability to release and give and sacrificially to people in need.
KUT News: What was church like that following weekend?
Hurta: Wow, for us, it was standing room only. It was almost like if you remember 9/11, you know, the weeks following, you know, flags everywhere, every synagogue and church was filled. We had a lot of new people inquiring about who are these people that are helping us in our time of need and we are looking for answers and, again, prayer and God seems to be right at the pinnacle of people’s thinking and so people responded.
KUT News: What was it like for you guys?
Wycoff: The next Sunday was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, if you recall, and so whereas pastors all over the city had prepared sermons to acknowledge that, to commemorate that, we also included, you know, many points about what the fire and 9/11 together mean, you know, what’s important. How tragedy and sadness in the temporal world we live in will be okay because of the eternal world that believers hope to belong to and so, you know, those messages can fit in real well.
KUT News: Oh wow. You know, Mike, you mentioned something that I think I want to get into. We’re almost time up, but I want to get into this one. You talked about the traffic; you sat in it and then when I was doing interviews we all figured out there is only two ways in and out and one way we couldn’t do so we’re just going this way. What was that like and how is it being addressed now?
Hurta: Yeah, well it was, you know, obviously you realize pretty quickly that this isn’t, in a time of crisis, there needs to be better planning for the future because people are stalled, I mean, just dead stopped and if the fires were coming up hills toward traffic, you know, there could have been an amazing sense of, I mean, loss of life while you’re trying to leave your home but you can’t get out of your neighborhood. So, you know, I think we all learned something there. I think there are some surveys that are happening and some future planning for a potential, you know, exit strategy beyond what we have. I don’t know the details of that, but I know that there is talk about that and I hope it’s more than just talk and we can really plan for that.
KUT News: When did you figure out that your house was okay?
Hurta: We figured that out, someone, while we were at Vandergrift with other families waiting to hear the news. Someone had done a fly over in a helicopter or something and had taken a photograph or something and it was on the web and we noticed that the burn line was just probably a couple hundred yards from our house, but it was still standing, but you could also see the charred homes that weren’t. So, people were getting a glimpse that their home was there or not before they actually drove into the neighborhood, if they had access to that information.
KUT News: What is Steiner Ranch like now?
Hurta: I think that it’s easy to go back quickly to status quo to, you know, and crisis has a way of jolting you into, again, the priorities and reality. I think our community will be quick responder any time soon of a crisis, no doubt. But I think the longer that time goes, because of human nature, we, like I said at the beginning of this interview, no one ever thinks it happens to you. It always happens to someone else and, therefore, I can kind of take it lightly. But, I think our people showed up well; I think they were so grateful for the help that they got. I think they gave benevolently to others and will do again. But, I think the danger is we just have to remind ourselves that life is short, there are no guarantees and if there is one lesson I come away with from the fire, again, is that thank goodness that no one lost a life in this fire at Steiner; I know that did happen in Bastrop, but I always ask people, to challenge people with this thought, which is are you ready? You know, you asked what would you take in your car, you know, well, there is a whole other idea here and that is what are you prepared with when your life comes to an end, you know, your eternity. I mean, that’s more important that what I’ve ever put in my car and the hope of the church and the message of the church is that Jesus Christ is that one that prepares any heart that’s open to him and life is temporal, eternal life with him is forever, if we invite him into our life and he’s changed my life. Many, many people, many walks of faith, denominations can attest to the same and so in the midst of tragedy there is a hope and a comfort and a piece that outlives the temporal-ness of even the loss of my life and that’s what God provides anyone if they will invite him in.
KUT News: Right and what are your opinions or your thoughts on how either Steiner has changed, if it has, or any lessons that we have learned from that weekend?
Wycoff: You know, I think we will really find out when we have some high alerts this Spring and Summer, but I think Chris is right that there can be a certain compassion that living through a crisis can give us, even in ordinary times. That’s what I’m hopeful for and that’s what I would like to see and I think we will be able to see that, you know, when there’s a next crisis. You know, there is always going to be another natural disaster and I think when we live through one or two or have experiencing ministering in that setting, you know, we see changed behavior and even for those who are not people of faith, you know, there is a closeness on your street, I’ve noticed, then there was a before.