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Wildfires are hard to be around, no matter who you are. It’s especially hard being around fires when you are reporting on them and wondering if a fire is blazing through your family’s home at the same time.
My parents are from Magnolia, a small town northwest of Houston that has never really had anything newsworthy come its way, unless of course, you count the Texas Renaissance Festival. That is until a small spark set tens of thousands of acres ablaze.
My family evacuated almost as soon as the fires started, as was my grandmother. I couldn’t believe it. Things like this don’t actually happen to you, they are just things you hear about in far away places.
In the moments of waiting to hear news from my parents, I was headed to Bastrop with another Bells staff member to cover the massive fire that was tearing through homes and property there. Labor Day was very long. I was stuck in the tension between trying to be a professional reporter while entertaining thoughts of my family’s situation and what would be lost if the fire reached our house.
In Bastrop, we were shut out of almost anything regarding the fire. Officials told us not even the firefighters were getting access to the blaze. Then we found a hill. As we stood at that high point, we saw why no one was allowed access. The whole horizon glowed and pulsed red with plumes of thick smoke rising up to the clouds.
This wildfire stuff was serious business.
By Tuesday afternoon, I had gotten word that our house was untouched for the time being, but they weren’t sure about my grandmother’s house.
The whole week was a roller coaster of emotions, but Wednesday in particular hit hard. I got news that our house was OK, and my parents were allowed back in. The fire had burnt up everything between our house and my grandmother’s, just a few miles apart. With things cooled down on the home front, a few of us reporters headed to Steiner Ranch and Cedar Park to see what was going on there.
We were blown away. The fire had been extinguished, and residents had just been let back in. As we stood on the ashy ruins of homes, I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed with thankfulness that my home was OK and heartbroken for those who had lost everything.
What had these ashes once been? Though they were just material things, there is a sense of security and refuge in homes, and these were destroyed. My mind constantly wandered to people I knew in Magnolia, hoping those I knew would be as fortunate as my family had been.
By Thursday, we had decided to write a series of wildfire stories for The Bells, which meant I would for sure be heading home to Magnolia for the weekend.
It’s a strange thing reporting on a tragedy in your hometown. In some ways, you have an advantage as a reporter. News travels fast among locals, and you have an inside track. In other ways, it’s much harder to cover the stories of what has happened there because it’s people and areas and neighborhoods you know.
The smoke was billowing out of trees from about 35 miles away. Almost as soon as I saw the extent of the fire in Magnolia, my Dad called to tell me they had been evacuated again. My parents wouldn’t be going home that night and neither would I.
I continued on, driving down unfamiliar roads, since the routes I usually take home contained road blocks keeping people away from the blaze. Eventually I passed under the tall towers of smoke defining the area near the fire. Everything instantly turned an eerie orange color.
Magnolia had been transformed into a war zone. Dozens of police cars barricaded main roads, sirens pierced the thick air, and smoke boiled like water from behind trees. Blackhawk helicopters and a DC 10 flew overhead, dropping abnormally low to disperse water and flame retardant on houses and trees.
Despite the near-record high temperatures, my body was covered in goose bumps as I watched the flames come toward my hometown. This couldn’t be real.
I took pictures and talked to residents for a couple of hours and then went to meet my parents, who had just made it out of our house with a few belongings. They filled me in on what was happening in the community. The goodness of humanity was revealed in that unbelievable situation.
The next day, people gathered for prayer. People dropped off large amounts of donations for victims. One church had 100 briskets and was feeding anyone who was hungry. The blaze had eased off, and people got updates on their houses after the previous day’s outbreaks. Both our house and my grandmother’s house were still untouched.
With a heavy heart, I headed back to school.
Covering fires and not knowing about your own house is an emotional roller coaster. It’s sad, it’s terrifying, it’s stressful, but more than all of that, it’s plain exhausting.
I shed a single tear as I fell asleep at my apartment in Belton Saturday night. A single tear for all those emotions because I was just too tired to do anything else.