As recent wildfires ravaged parts of Texas, destroying homes and property in their path, thousands of Texans were displaced and endured tremendous losses.
Among the hardest hit were a group of individuals who lost their homes to the very fires they were volunteering to fight.
A majority of the members of the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department—just between Smithville and Bastrop—lost their homes in the Bastrop fire, the most costly fire in Texas' history.
For Mizzy Zdroj, one of the Heart of Pines volunteer firefighters, news of her home being destroyed did not deter her from continuing to work around the clock to fight the fires.
Zdroj told the Houston Chronicle, "When I have this suit on, and I can make runs, and I can put out fires, and I can save other people from having to lose all their things - and having to explain that to their kids - I'll do it."
According to the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association, more than three-fourths of Texas' fire departments are manned by volunteers. In recent weeks, these volunteer firefighters have flocked to Central Texas and other parts of Texas in droves to help battle historic blazes. For most, firefighting is not their day job. Among the Heart of the Pines team, for instance, are a truck driver, an artist, and a college chemistry lecturer.
In Texas and across the country, volunteer firefighters are often the first line of defense against wildfires and emergency situations in rural or less populated communities. The nation's first volunteer fire department was established by founding father Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin, who had witnessed the devastating effects of several fires since childhood, was concerned about the lack of organized fire protection. In 1736, Franklin established the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, manned by 30 volunteer firefighters.
Since then, generations of volunteer firefighters have demonstrated courage and selflessness in the face of danger. Today, roughly 30,000 volunteer firefighters call Texas home. More than 85 percent of these men and women use their personal funds to meet the needs of their fire departments.
As we've witnessed during this year's historic drought, these local heroes go above and beyond the call of duty, and they deserve our utmost gratitude and support. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the employers who have given these volunteers the time off they need to serve and protect Texas communities.
I recently had the chance to tour fire-damaged areas of Bastrop and was humbled to see Texans coming together to help their neighbors in need. In addition to the hard work of our volunteer firefighters, many Texans have donated their time and talents in other areas to bring about recovery in Central Texas. While some manned the Incident Command Post in Bastrop, others facilitated donation drives for families who had lost homes and all their belongings, while others worked to find lodging for displaced livestock and family pets.
Though the Texas spirit has been tested to extremes in recent weeks, I am proud to say it has not faltered. Texans have stood shoulder to shoulder to help each other recover, and we will continue to do so until all of the fire victims are back on their feet.
On the front lines of this effort have been our volunteer firefighters, many of whom have experienced great personal losses. I hope we can each do our part to rally behind these brave men and women in the coming days to express our appreciation for the protection they have so selflessly provided.
Sources: State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas; The Houston Chronicle