People perched in the back of pickup trucks and in lawn chairs across a grocery store parking lot just watching, fixated on the dark clouds of smoke rising from the near horizon. Their town was burning.
The fire in Magnolia, Texas, had just been named the number three top priority wildfire in the state and nation on Sept. 12, and it was obvious why.
Sophomore Christian studies major Sarah Stadler’s parents were not among the onlookers; they were at their house packing, frantically trying to decide what in their home was important enough to take up space in their loaded car. They were preparing to evacuate.
“You never expect a call from your parents where they are asking you what you want from your room or if there is anything that you possibly want to keep,” Stadler said.
Fifteen years of memories living in that house flooded her mind. Out of all that, what was worth keeping? She decided the items she wanted most were pictures and a few books she had stored in her room.
With her parents evacuated from their home, Stadler was left with questions of what was happening in her hometown.
She said, “ It was just really nerve racking and stressful and scary, and I didn’t know what was going to happen because they weren’t there anymore. … I didn’t know if our house was going to burn down or if it was OK. I think it was just the fear of the unknown at that point.”
With classes and school activities continuing as normal, Stadler felt her stress level rise dramatically. Focusing on lectures wasn’t easy for her as she wondered how the community she had grown up in was doing.
She said, “It was really hard being here because I felt helpless. I felt like there wasn’t anything
that I could do because if I went home, there was really nothing I could do there, and if I stayed here, there was really nothing I could do here either.”
It was a week of ups and downs. The fire would die down. Then the winds would shift and hurl flames in a new direction, causing chaos and fear for everyone in its path.
“There were several close calls. It got really close to my high school and the town. …. A friend of mine that I have known since elementary school, her house actually burned down,” Stadler said. “It’s hard to think that could have been me and my family. That could have been us trying to dig through the rubble and look for things that may have survived.”
During the devastation, the community realized the best support they had was from those closest to the situation.
Stadler said, “One of the coolest things was to see groups of people come together that may not even know each other to help each other out in a time of need. It’s a huge support system you don’t even realize you have until disaster hits.”
The fires raged across three counties for over a week, scorching more than 22,000 acres and 76 structures. But the kindness of the community wasn’t extinguished when the flames were.
Magnolia resident Rachel Hardy created the group Rebuilding Magnolia, an organization dedicated to serving the victims of the wildfire by providing resources and connecting those in need with the appropriate help.
Rebuilding Magnolia grew out of the ashes of a torn community. It’s a ministry of First Baptist Church of Magnolia, whose congregation was dedicated to serving in whatever ways possible.
During the fires, the church opened its doors to the firefighters battling the blazes, offering them meals, showers, and even projecting NFL games on a screen, giving the weary responders a sort of break from the outside chaos.
The Southern Baptist Convention donated food for the responders.
Church members picked up the firefighters’ laundry every night, washing and drying it by 6 a.m. the next morning so they could go back out to fight the flames.
Rebuilding Magnolia continued in the mindset of doing whatever possible to help victims’ lives return to normal.
Hardy said, “We have been contacted by many families and have been able to help them out with their needs or direct them to ministries that could better provide for their needs.”
The generosity of the community has been almost overwhelming for some local
“People have just been dying to help and give to the point where many collection places and organizations had to put a stop on collecting many items. That has been a great problem to have,” Hardy said.
Chief Deputy of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Randy McDaniel believes the community’s gratitude to the first responders stands out above everything else.
“Our law enforcement officers and fire fighters did a fantastic job, and the community was quick to recognize their work,” McDaniel said.
He has lived in several different places and believes his current location in Montgomery County is great because of the citizens’ positive response to disaster.
“I have heard of several proposed fundraisers to help those whose homes were destroyed,” McDaniel said. “I think it is important to recognize the community as a whole and the closeness that you have here. I’ve lived all over the world, U.S. and Texas, and there is something unique about Montgomery County.”