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August 17, 2012

Back from Bastrop, a perspective after the fires

ALEDO — The recent fires in Palo Pinto County are eerily reminiscent of last year, when Texans endured perhaps the most destructive series of wildfires in the state’s history. Some were forced to flee their homes as sheets of flames, fed by drought and high winds, engulfed nearly 4 million acres and almost 3,000 homes, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Mike Montgomery, who was recently defeated in a primary runoff election for precinct 4 constable, has been right in the middle of recovery efforts statewide since July 6, 2011, when he was deployed for a year-long stint as a contractor with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management.

Invited to participate because of his association with Lonestar Claims Group in Aledo, which he founded, Montgomery worked in the public assistance recovery division, hand-in-hand with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

His job was to seek reimbursement for damages to public structures, such as office buildings and state parks, that occurred while the fires were being fought.

The massive effort required a huge amount of teamwork, Montgomery said, as state and federal agencies worked alongside county judges, emergency management coordinators and emergency responders to develop and coordinate action plans.   

When his team set out to do preliminary damage assessments — conducted to trigger state and federal aid as quickly as possible — the fires were still blazing.

“The purpose was to gain federal assistance through the president’s declaration of a major disaster,” Montgomery said. “In a small county, the fuel cost alone can consume limited resources.”

Montgomery was involved with debris removal, helping to determine, for example, which damaged trees seemed likely to fall and hit a power line or obstruct a roadway, making their removal eligible for assistance.

Though he traveled from county to county across the state, often packing up at a moment’s notice, Montgomery finished his deployment in Bastrop County, site of the deadly Bastrop County Complex wilfires.

In the state park there, he drove a four-wheeler 22 miles, identifying potentially dangerous trees with a small computer, so they could be removed and the park reopened.

Nearly 50 field workers from FEMA were working in the disaster area, Montgomery said, assessing damages and filling out reports, as well as about a dozen from the state.

The Environmental Protection Agency was on site too, he said, working to protect the Houston toad, whose habitat was being destroyed by the fire.

“We were supposed to fill out a report if a toad was killed because of the Endangered Species Act,” Montgomery said. “We had training on identification and safety. We were not allowed to pick one up.”

Today, people are rebuilding and getting back on their feet, Montgomery said, and though it will take decades for the trees to return, the difference is like night and day.

Back then, it was a war zone.

“It was the biggest fire,” Montgomery said, “1,700 structures, an entire community gone. Imagine driving into McDavid Estates and just seeing ashes on the ground.”

Montgomery’s friend, retired firefighter Dennis Wynne, was also deployed as a contractor in Bastrop County. He remarked that the individuals seemed to be going through post-traumatic stress disorder, much like soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These individuals had lost everything,” Wynne said, “livestock, horses ... One guy had over 8,000 matchbox cars, all melted into a small puddle of aluminum.

“The people were devastated. The number one thing I heard was, ‘I have no history. All my photographs are gone.’”

Anger — aimed at no particular target — was a common reaction when the men approached homeowners about removing disaster-related debris. Some were wary of scrap thieves who had looted their property.

“They were resistant,” Montgomery said, “On some properties people would come out with guns, trying to protect their property or their neighbor’s. We were engaged by homeowners multiple times.”

In one case, the men had to access land owned by a man who had posted multiple signs threatening that trespassers would be shot, Montgomery said.

“The sign closest to the house said, ‘If you take another step, I’ll kill you,”” Wynne added, “then the man came out, and he was armed.”

On that memorable occasion, Wynne was able to defuse the man’s hostility by offering genuine sympathy, he said, but after that, as long as the men worked in the area, the sheriff escorted them.

Helping people in ways other than securing financial assistance for them was sometimes part of the job, Montgomery said.

He said his law enforcement background as a crisis counselor and his experience coping with his own personal tragedies — the shooting death of a partner on the police force and the suicide of his sister — have sensitized him to the emotions people feel in devastating situations.

“As a Bastrop crew leader I was not there to mark time and draw a paycheck,” he said, “but to make sure I could take care of the applicant. I was there as their advocate.”

Montgomery is home with his wife and three daughters now and glad to stop relying on Skype and Facetime to see his family’s faces.

He had hoped to be settling into a new role as a constable, but remarked on the difficulty of campaigning from 220 miles away.

“I love being in disasters, but it’s so hard being gone,” he said. “One reason I ran for constable was so it would keep me home.”

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