God in the fire

I am on my way back home to Cape Coral, Florida, after the Founders Conference in Owasso, Oklahoma. But I simply must tell this story and can’t wait until I get back on Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, around 4 PM Central time, we received a phone call from my friend and brother, Don Reisinger. He said, “Pastor, we don’t want to alarm you, but thought you should know, a serious fire is burning in Northwest Cape Coral, and is getting dangerously close to your home. It is over 500 acres in size. Evacuations in your area have been ordered. Helicopters are dumping water on houses that are in danger, including yours. We are praying.”

We spoke a little more about God’s faithfulness and absolute sovereignty over the weather and he encouraged me to remember what I believe.

Donna and I got on the internet and starting watching and reading news reports about the fire. Instead of 500 acres, it was now being reported as 1200. The main road leading to our home was closed down to traffic. Firefighters and forestry workers from surrounding cities were joining the fight.

Donna and I cancelled a dinner meeting we had with dear friends and prayed together. By God’s grace we were able to confess that the Lord is good in all His ways, and that there would be no reason to doubt His wisdom, goodness and power if our house burned to the ground. We asked Him to protect the firemen, our neighbors and the animals in danger.

Bill Vanhelden is the Fire Chief of Cape Coral. He is a friend and a faithful Christian brother. I knew he would be praying while enduring the greatest challenge of his career. We prayed for him specifically.

After talking with our children, we decided not to start the 30 hour trip home immediately. Though we knew there was nothing we could do, even if we were there, knowing that we were so far away added to our sense of loneliness and helplessness. We spoke with several fellow members of Grace Baptist Church who had tried to drive to our house but were stopped by officials. One got through and told us the house was OK around 4:45 PM.

There is a way to walk to our house through some wooded areas behind our neighbors’ houses. Had I been there, I would have taken that route. Another resourceful friend and church member, David Stamps, figured that out as well, and made his way to my neighbor’s home across the street from us. He called us at 4:55 PM and told us that our neighbor, who stayed in his house, would help water our house and yard if the fire drew closer. My house was between his and the rapidly progressing NW front of the fire.

So many brothers and sisters from our church family offered to help walk through the wooded area to our house to grab pictures and important papers for us. We seriously considered those offers but decided that the risk was not worth it, and resolved to leave it all with the Lord without any further effort to save anything or check on the house.

By 6:15, the fire was over 2000 acres big. It ultimately grew from 85 to 24oo acres in 4 hours, becoming the largest wildfire in Cape Coral history. At 6:25, I spoke with my neighbor who told me that everything looked good at that point, and that there was a “huge cloud” hanging right over our heads, but that there was “no sign of rain anywhere.” I told him we were going to pray for rain, and we did.

Our whole family attended the Founders Conference this year and we entered the worship center at Bethel Baptist Church right at 6:30 PM. Around 7:00, my brother Bill, who was moderating the meeting, led the congregation to pray for the Lord’s mercy to be displayed in the fire in Cape Coral. He asked the Lord to rule over the weather and protect our house and our neighbor’s.

Around 8PM, near the end of the service that night, my wife spoke by cell phone to Barb Reisinger back in Cape Coral. Barb reported that she had just heard from a church member who lives within a few miles of us that a “huge burst of rain” had fallen about 45 minutes ago and stopped the fire. I relayed that word to Bill at the end of the service and the congregation erupted in clapping, praising God for His kindness in this.

Later that night, I read news reports and checked my phone records in order to reconstruct the time-line on these events. Around 7:00 PM Central time, we prayed in Owasso. Around 8:00-8:10 Eastern time the rain began to fall on the western front of the fire in Cape Coral. To the best of my ability to determine it, God answered those prayers in Owasso–and no doubt many others from many places, including Cape Coral–within minutes of their being voiced.

Friends told us they had never seen such a deluge of water in such a short amount of time. It poured for 10 minutes, then stopped as suddenly as it started. One of our young adults called later that night, having gone to our house to check on it and said that our yard and house was “soaked.”

Cape Coral and all SW Florida has been the midst of the worst drought we have experienced in 100 years. This fire was by far the largest our city has ever seen. It was a rapidly moving fire, sparks traveling up to a quarter mile to ignite other areas under heavy winds. Hundreds of people worked around the clock to fight this fire on the ground and from the air. Our local newspaper offered this commentary in commendation of those workers:

Fighting a brush fire of this size that spread from 85 acres to 2,000 in about four hours, wasn’t about dumping millions of gallons of water on it. Water didn’t put this fire out. Plows did.

I thank God for the forestry service’s expertise in cutting fire breaks with their plows. But plows didn’t put this fire out. God did. This is a story about the kindness and power of our great God. Had the fire burned our house down, it would still be such a story, but perhaps shrouded in more mystery for a season. Romans 8:28 is always true, when houses are spared and when they burn to the ground. So is Romans 8:32.

Thanks for your prayers. Join us in expressing thanks and praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been very merciful to us in these events.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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