'It's just devastating': Falcons FB Keith Smith's aunt and uncle cope with Dixie Fire loss

Residents of Greenville hope to rebuild after the Dixie Fire destroyed much of the small town in Northern California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Larry and Beth Foster grabbed as much as they could from their home in Greenville, California, earlier this month. They had already dropped off the horses and chickens at a temporary location before returning home to salvage more.

Usually, when they heard about evacuations, there would be some notice. They suspected an order might come soon, but regardless, they already had two truckloads of clothes and documents loaded and stored safely. They believed they had time to gather more.

But then they looked out their window and up the mountain that shadowed their home.

"You could see the flames coming down the mountain," Beth Foster said. "Quickly. ... They were coming quick."

Larry and Beth swiftly gathered old quilts, more photos and whatever important papers that remained and hopped into their cars. They didn't know what to expect. Even though they saw the fire coming, they hoped their house and the nine-plus acres they lived on would survive.

Thousands of miles away, inside the Atlanta Falcons training facility, fullback Keith Smith's phone buzzed. In a group chat with his mother and siblings, he started learning what was going on. The Dixie Fire had gotten close. There had been evacuations.

Then he learned his aunt and uncle's home had been destroyed.

"We lost Greenville tonight."

Those were the words of Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., the Congressman who represented Greenville, in an emotional Facebook video post on Aug. 4. He and his constituents -- Larry and Beth among them -- started to process what had happened even though they didn't know whether their properties had survived or not.

The videos painted devastating images; the pictures produced heartbreak. Much of the small town was destroyed. The story was major news throughout the world, with coverage from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the BBC, among others.

The fire severely altered the Fosters' everyday existence, particularly Larry's work as a contractor and plumber. Their immediate and long-term future was unknown.

While they watched the flames barreling toward them, Larry said they still held out hope. The family went their different ways, with Larry and Beth headed for Reno, Nevada, their daughter and her boyfriend venturing to another location and their son traveling to Chico, California, to stay with friends.

Reality hit later, when one of Larry's friends, who drove a water truck for the fire department, passed their home. Except for the roof and the brick chimney, it had been wiped out.

The friend sent pictures to Larry and Beth.

"It was very scary and very upsetting not knowing," Beth said. "Really, initially, you just don't think, well, that your family is fine and you're OK. And that obviously is the No. 1 thing.

"And then as time goes on, the loss just becomes more real. You know, everything is gone. Our home."

The animals and two truckloads of clothes, quilts, papers and tools Larry could use for work whenever business picked up again were saved. And their family was safe. Everything else was either destroyed or their status unknown.

Larry and Beth ended up two and a half hours away in a Reno hotel. They reached out to their Greenville neighbors seeking information. It was sparse.

"The conversation is basically, 'Have you heard anything? No. Have you? No,'" Larry said. "... There's a lot of waiting and of course nobody wants to do that."

Smith's mother, Beth's sister, said she was going to Reno for a few days to help the Fosters cope. Larry, though, had started to feel sick. Soon after arriving in Reno, both Larry and Beth contracted COVID-19, leaving them isolated in the hotel.

But help would soon be on the way.

In the group text, Smith and his family started to brainstorm ideas. They knew insurance claims would deflect some of Larry and Beth's losses, but claims take time and they were hours from home, unable to work.

Smith knew he was in a good financial position to assist by using his platform as an NFL player. A GoFundMe page was started and Smith posted a plea to his 103,000 Instagram followers, telling them his aunt and uncle's story along with a link to Beth's Venmo account. To start, Smith sent $3,000 through Venmo.

"You feel for them and it's hard to relate," Smith told ESPN. "I don't think you can truly understand how that feels to actually lose your house and what, really, what you call home and things that just aren't replaceable."

Smith said he heard from some other NFL players -- including the Raiders' Maxx Crosby -- who said they sent money. Beth said she couldn't believe the outpouring of support. Although they the Fosters aren't sure how much money people have donated, they believe it's around $8,000.

"It's been just kind of overwhelming," Beth said.

Two weeks later, the Fosters still didn't know the extent of damage. They believe their tractor somehow survived but they know their home is gone along with a small, secondary house on the property, an RV trailer and some old cars Larry had been working on.

They remain in Reno, starting to feel better after COVID and waiting to hear when they can return to see what remains. From the limited photos they've seen, they assume almost everything is gone.

"I just don't even have any words to describe how awful it feels. You're never going to go back to that home," Beth said, pausing to compose herself. "You're never going to walk in that front door.

"And yeah, it's just devastating. I know that it can be replaced, but still. It's a lot."

Like many in Greenville, the Fosters don't know what's next. They would like to rebuild, but they don't know if or when that can happen and what it might look like. They haven't thought about other options. While they are coping with their losses, the impact remains raw.

Larry said they don't want to venture too far from Reno yet -- including going to Southern California where Smith's mom lives -- because they want to be close enough to their property as soon as they can return.

They aren't alone. They know that. Plumas County, where Greenville is located, had 18,807 people in it at the last census. Greenville had a population around 1,000.

It was a small town, a place where everyone knew everyone else. Now it's gone.

"It's more devastating not just that we lost our home but that we lost our whole community and that it's a small community," Beth said. " ... You can see faces that you would see at the grocery store or wherever you were at around town and just kind of wondering how they are doing.

"Just really, the majority from what I hear on Facebook is that they want to rebuild Greenville if that would be able to happen, you know. To rebuild the town."