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Wildfire puts disaster relief leader in need

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–For 10 years, Sam Porter has been responding to other people’s needs when tragedy strikes. In the early evening hours of April 9, however, the disaster relief director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma found himself in an eerie role reversal as a wildfire came within a few feet of destroying his north Oklahoma City home.

That Thursday evening was supposed to be one of celebration and reflection as Porter was accompanying his wife Sheryl to a banquet sponsored by the Oklahoma Public Health Association at the Sheraton Hotel downtown. He was to receive the association’s 2009 Volunteer Service Award during the group’s annual conference.

As the Porters emerged from the hotel elevator about 5:30 p.m., his cell phone rang. A neighbor was calling to tell him the pasture and five-stall horse barn on Porter’s five-acre property was on fire. Embers from a blaze in the field had been blown by high winds onto a roll of hay Porter kept near the barn to feed several fallow deer he keeps on the property.

“With the humidity down to around 10 percent, the barn and hay were just like a tinderbox and burned rapidly,” said Porter, who quickly raced home with his wife before the banquet began.

Porter said he had a sense of calm as he drove home, not knowing if anything would still be there when they arrived.

“Once I realized my house wasn’t burning I was OK,” he said. “I go all over the world and see stuff everywhere but as we were driving home, Sheryl said, ‘We need to hurry. It may already be on fire.’ And I said, ‘It’s just stuff.'”

They were greeted in their driveway by five fire trucks and a host of Oklahoma City firefighters working to put out the barn fire and dousing flames a mere 10 feet from the Porters’ home.

Porter’s next door neighbor, Chad Kerrigan, noticed an ember had landed close to the house and alerted firefighters, who were intently focusing their efforts on the barn, which is about 25 yards away.

“Chad really saved the house from being burned,” Porter said. “I saw they had everything under control, so we went back to the banquet.”

Because of the dry and windy conditions, wildfires were becoming a serious problem in eastern Oklahoma County, Porter said.

“After the banquet, I checked the barn one more time and then put on my DR [disaster relief] shirt and told the firemen, ‘You guys are doing what you’re supposed to do — taking care of property. I’ve got to go take care of people.'”

Porter drove over to First Baptist Church in Nicoma Park, where a shelter had been set up for fire victims. He was on his way back home about 10 p.m. when his wife called to say the barn was on fire again.

The firefighters came back and knocked down the blaze again.

“The next day, I drove down to southern Oklahoma to Velma and Fox and Ratliff City to survey the damage, and there were probably 40 to 50 houses burned down in that area,” Porter said.

State officials initially estimated that between 100 and 150 homes were destroyed by wildfires April 9-10 in Oklahoma and Lincoln counties in the central part of the state, and Stephens and Carter counties to the south.
Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger (baptistmessenger.com), newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

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