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Wildfires subside, but support continues

Students and faculty led the university’s response to Bastrop’s September wildfires, and an Oct. 17 benefit concert carries on the spirit of giving.

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Students and faculty at The University of Texas at Austin volunteered expertise, time and effort to help residents of Bastrop County cope with damage wrought by the September wildfires.

A nursing student, archivists and social work students were among those who pitched in during the fires and their aftermath.

And on Oct. 17, the university and other organizations will sponsor “Fire Relief: The Concert for Central Texas” at the Frank Erwin Center.

Entertainers include George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Asleep at the Wheel. For more information and tickets, go to the Fire Relief website.

Money raised by the concert will help those affected by the fires with long-term issues and problems.

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Nursing student Lindsey Wiginton checked people’s vital signs at a shelter site in Bastrop County. 

Nursing student cares for fire victims with grace and skill

Lindsey Wiginton

Nursing student Lindsey Wiginton checked people’s vital signs at a shelter site in Bastrop County. 

As wildfires burned through Bastrop County in early September, Lindsey Wiginton wasn’t going to wait for an invitation to help.

The School of Nursing senior had grown up in Bastrop and still has family and friends there.

She’d already loaded up her car with supplies and was ready to drive to the fires when the American Red Cross called asking if she could help at the shelter that had been set up at Bastrop Middle School.

Once there, she joined a doctor and a nurse. Wiginton and the nurse worked through the night, tending to the medical needs of about 200 people who spent the night in the shelter and others who stayed in their vehicles outside the school. Many had rushed from their homes on short notice, leaving medications and other essentials behind.

Wiginton took medication histories, noted signs and reported to the doctor on duty. She took blood pressure and blood sugar readings. In the morning, she helped arrange rides to a pharmacy with police officers for those who needed prescriptions filled. She reported to a psychiatric nurse about people who needed her help.

Wiginton’s help didn’t strictly involve nursing duties.

One woman didn’t want to have anything to do with the aid workers. She lay on a cot, facing a wall. She was embarrassed and mortified by tears in her clothing.

The volunteers found a needle and thread in the theater arts room and Wiginton stitched up the woman’s nightgown. That made all the difference.

“There’s a need that some people have and it might seem silly to some people, but when you can take care of that, then they can deal with a difficult situation,” Wiginton said. “After that she could deal with sleeping on a cot. After that she was OK. “

Dr. Marilyn Pattillo, a nursing professor, said the School of Nursing’s integrated content program that includes different aspects of nursing shone through in the ways Wiginton helped people at the shelter.

“She knew that you don’t have to be burned to be a victim,” Pattillo said. “If you’ve lost your home, that’s a mental health problem.”

The School of Nursing has led nationally in including emergency preparedness and disaster nursing content throughout its undergraduate and graduate programs. It will receive the 2011 Innovations in Professional Nursing Education Award from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Dr. Sanjeev Gupta, the Bastrop physician who worked at the shelter with Wigington, called her work excellent.

“She was very willing to help and very good with patients,” he said. “Her clinical acumen was excellent. She’s just a wonderful nurse.”

Wiginton said her training from her professors in the School of Nursing enabled her to work effectively at the shelter.

“I grew into my nursing shoes.”

By Tim Green
School of Nursing

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Nursing student Lindsey Wiginton checked people’s vital signs at a shelter site in Bastrop County. 

Once the fires are out, conservators help salvage what remains

iSchool volunteers

Volunteers from the School of Information held free disaster recovery workshops. 

As media coverage intensified and damage estimates escalated during the Labor Day weekend fires in Central Texas, University of Texas at Austin conservators Karen Pavelka and Rebecca Elder realized they could help.

The two scholars have spent decades mending and preserving materials from photos and books to heirlooms and electronics in the School of Information, which has been ranked best in the nation in archives and preservation for more than a decade.

By Monday, Sept. 5, the iSchool had posted “Resources for Wildfire Victims” online. The site offered information about free workshops to help salvage personal items, gave tips for handling various materials, and listed disaster recovery agencies and their websites.

The school held two free disaster recovery workshops — one on Sept. 18 in the school’s laboratory on Guadalupe Street and another on Sept. 24 in the Bastrop Public Library.

“Something like this is so difficult to time,” Pavelka said. “People affected by these fires have so many basic necessities to deal with up front including finding housing, shopping for food and clothing and talking to insurance companies.

“However, we didn’t want to wait too long to have the workshops because if people start throwing things out, we’ve missed the opportunity to help. It’s a very fine line.”

Numerous graduate students volunteered their time and effort for both workshops, including Virginia Luhresen, Lorrie Dong, Sarah Sokolow, Antonia Frydman, Tiffany Criswell and Marianna Symonides.

Pavelka and Elder are still available to help and can assess items in their laboratories. Pavelka can be reached at 512-471-8286 and Elder can be reached at 512-699-3494.

By Amy Crossette
School of Information

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Nursing student Lindsey Wiginton checked people’s vital signs at a shelter site in Bastrop County. 

Satellite images help researcher detect fires, manage evacuations

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A satellite image taken of the burn scar in Bastrop County on Sept. 9, 2011.Photo: Courtesy of the Center for Space Research/UT Austin

When a disaster strikes in Texas, Gordon Wells heads to the state operations center of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Wells, a research scientist at the Center for Space Research (CSR) and Cockrell School of Engineering, examines satellite images from CSR’s receiving station to help detect fires, track storm paths, manage evacuations and direct relief efforts.

When wildfires ignited in Bastrop County, Wells and his CSR team went into action.

The CSR quickly obtained satellite imagery that showed the complicated burn pattern of the Bastrop fire. Some tree stands were incinerated, while other woodland areas within the fire perimeter were only partially burnt or lightly damaged.

In the days following the fire, the CSR guided photo surveys conducted by the Texas Civil Air Patrol, which took more than 4,000 detailed photographs of the area.

Many of the aerial photos taken by the Civil Air Patrol showed evidence of a ground fire entering structures through wooden decks or shrubbery that grew near the sides of homes. Some destroyed houses were surrounded by trees with undamaged canopies.

The photos can be used by the National Institute of Standards and Technology as part of their Building and Fire Research Program to analyze the circumstances that caused the destruction of some structures while nearby properties were left untouched.

Recommendations for better protective measures may result from investigations underway in Bastrop County.

Although tree stands may have green foliage today, their trunks have been burned by the fire and are susceptible to disease and insects. The CSR plans to examine a series of high-resolution satellite images through the region’s green-up period in spring 2012 to observe signs of vegetative stress. Texas Forest Service and the county will work with landowners to identify dead and dying trees for removal.

By Tim Green
Office of the Vice President for Research

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Nursing student Lindsey Wiginton checked people’s vital signs at a shelter site in Bastrop County. 

Social work group chips in to clean up after the fire


A group from the School of Social Work collected metal at a burned home site and hauled it to a scrap yard for recycling. The proceeds will be given to the homeowners. Photo: Melissa McChesney and Cal Streeter

After helping clean up tornado-stricken Joplin, Mo., a group of students from the School of Social Work drove through another disaster on their way back to Austin: the wildfires that devastated parts of Bastrop County.

They wanted to help but there wasn’t much they could do. The Bastrop area was still in crisis mode and relief agencies were taking care of immediate needs.

“There was this desire for purpose and to be there for the victims of the fire,” said Robbie Spears, a master’s student in Social Work. “There was a lot of energy, but nowhere to go with it.”

A few weeks later, they had their chance. A call came from Bastrop. Help was needed to clean up burnt-out home sites.

Spears, five other social work students and Social Work professor Calvin Streeter drove into the Tahitian Village subdivision to haul away metal objects  — that hadn’t burned in the fire.

“Washers and dryers and refrigerators and stoves,” Streeter said. “They needed to get that stuff cleared out of there. So that’s what we did.”

The scene was surreal, Spears said. Several houses that were burned to the ground sat across the street from a house that had been untouched.

The first site they visited was the home of Steven and Joyce Barrett whose daughter, Carrie, coincidentally, had received a bachelor’s of social work degree from the university in 1996.

The volunteers wore full-face masks to protect themselves from breathing in ash as well as gloves. “It was hot, dirty, dusty and stinky work,” Streeter said. “But there’s no other way to clean that up.”

The Social Justice Action Coalition, a student group in the School of Social Work, is working on more volunteer efforts, Spears said. They include more cleanup and rebuilding as well as working with a group to find housing for people who were recently released from prison and whose homes had burned in the fire.

By Tim Green
School of Social Work