The glow of the flames lit the horizon like light pollution from a large city. Police barricades blocked off the dangerous area as traffic streamed from the town.
Bastrop, Texas was burning.
Junior international business major Bethany Greeson’s grandparents live in the Bastrop area, and their home is her home while she is attending UMHB. It was one of the 1,600 homes lost to wildfires in Bastrop and surrounding Austin communities.
So far, 41,020 acres have burned in the Austin area and have taken four lives. Though 95 percent contained, the fire was burning through Sunday night – two weeks after it started.
Greeson’s parents Kevin and Holley Greeson are missionaries in Asia, but her grandparents Richard and Ladelle Atkinson, live relatively close to UMHB.
Their Bastrop house held all the memories and sentimental items that stay behind when missionaries go abroad and students leave for school.
“That house has kind of been my home here in the States,” Bethany Greeson said. “All of our personal mementos were in there. I had to write my high school and ask for another diploma and yearbook.”
Greeson went to visit and see the destruction shortly after the fire.
“They lived in a wood house, and it’s all gone,” she said. “They were away during the evacuation, so they couldn’t get anything or rescue their cats. Luckily, the cats were sitting there when they got to go home.”
Bits of good news seem dwarfed in comparison to the tragedy of the fires. But Greeson holds on to the good things. Not only does she need to deal with the loss, but has to comfort her grandparents and reassure her parents who lost so much from so far away.
“My mom lost all of her childhood stuff growing up,” she said. “She told me ‘I’m gonna jump on a plane and come now.’”
Greeson referenced the calm she saw in her grandparents to ease her mother’s worry.
“My grandmother was pointing out the little blessings through the day,” she said. “Everyone has been positive. I think it has made the community stronger. It was sad, but everyone came together. Everybody was willing to help each other.”
Department of Modern Foreign Languages Chair Sue Pardue’s home in Bastrop was also in danger of the fire. She was relieved to learn that her house was spared, but her sister’s home was destroyed.
Pardue, like Greeson, spoke first about the good things she has seen since the fire.
“In times like this, it is comforting to see how everyone comes together,” she said.
About 40 miles northwest of Bastrop, the Austin community of Steiner Ranch also faced destruction Sept. 4. Volunteers and homeowners wandered through the rubble and hugged as they saw their streets for the first time since the evacuation Sept. 6.
A shell of what used to be a truck lay among rubble. A beautiful home was just a foot-deep layer of ashy clay and soot. Pillars of stone stood in a few places, imitating a structure.
Resident Taffy Doggett stood in her yard and watched workers dig through the ash of her neighbor’s former house.
“Sunday we were coming home, and we saw the fire in the canyon that was coming,” she said. “We got home and started unloading groceries, and soon the sun was gone and it was black. It all happened so fast.”
The firefighters keyed on protecting her house, as it was the closest thing standing between the flames and the rest of the neighborhood.
“When we left, they hadn’t done the official evacuation, but they were screaming ‘Get out!’ We were backing out as the first firetruck came in.”
Cedar Park Police Department Chaplain Doug James met with families and relief workers as they returned to the charred neighborhood.
One group from Hill Country Bible Church and Austin Christian Fellowship sifted through the black gunk of Doggett’s neighbor’s home with shovels. They paused briefly to pray for the families in the area affected by the blaze.
“This family is missing a fire-proof box,” he said. “They are helping look for that. We are also helping move trash to the road, and we are forming teams to bring food and remove trash. Some of this area still doesn’t have electricity.”
As the affected communities attempt to clean up and rebuild, many challenges still stand in the way.
“It’s been hard to balance school and life,” Greeson said. “My professors have been understanding. I’m back on track, but for a few days it was really rough. I know that those things were a blessing when I had them, but God chose to take them away.”