SALT LAKE CITY- As residents of evacuated Arizona towns return home, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say their main work is just beginning: to help those who lost property in the 417,000-acre fire.
Snowflake resident Ashley Davis says “When we start rebuilding their homes and working with them, that’s when you’ll see the legacy this fire has left behind – a community united.”
Approximately 15,000 of the region’s full-time residents are members of the Church. The town of Snowflake, where the Red Cross has set up its command post, was named for Mormon colonizers Erastus Snow and William Flake; Taylor, up the road, and Heber, just up the hill, bear the names of Apostles John Taylor and Heber J. Grant. Mormon pioneers settled much of the region, and thousands of their descendants remain firmly rooted in the area.
The Mormon community, known for its ability to organize and respond in crisis situations, immediately sprang into action when on Friday, 21 June, the Round Valley High School “Dome” in Eagar, was selected as an emergency shelter for some of the expected 35,000 evacuees fleeing the fire.
The Red Cross had fewer than a dozen people on hand to receive and assist them. As one of the Church’s regional leaders, Steven Heap made a couple of phone calls, and before nightfall had 500 helpers standing by. Another 300 joined them before sunrise Saturday.
Heap also placed a call to the Church’s huge “Bishops Storehouse” in Mesa, and within an hour a semi-trailer full of food, tents, sleeping bags and emergency power generation equipment was on the road. Within five hours, a network of Latter-day Saints, all well connected through oft-utilized phone trees, was unloading it.
Heaps says of the volunteers, “They were just desperate to help. Members of the Church and other people in the community stepped right up to the plate. We had nurses that got off work, people who took vacation time to come and help out.”
During the late night evacuation it soon became apparent that the elderly with special medical needs couldn’t be sheltered in the dome. The Red Cross said it found a safe haven for the elderly when the Church opened the doors of the Eagar Stake Center, a regional LDS meetinghouse.
With no hospital beds available, a call went out for recliners and within an hour over a hundred of the chairs lined the gym and halls of the building. The ladies of the Church’s long-established and well-oiled “Relief Society” staffed the facility’s kitchen and the elderly spent their time in a peaceful atmosphere playing games, the piano and working puzzles.
Chad Ettmueller, the Red Cross Officer in charge of the Eagar Shelter says, “It has just been amazing. The Church has provided their own nurses who are members of the Church augmented by services from the Red Cross.”
Pinetop resident Helen Jones says she was frightened during the evacuation but after being brought to the special needs shelter at the Church says, “I worry not a bit…They are a giving, devoted people. You can feel their hearts.”
Lakeside evacuee Robert Barnes agrees, “They bend over backwards to help you, all right. They treat you like a human being with respect and kindness and if there’s anything you need, they get it and if they can’t get it, they’ll find someone to get it for you. They’re going to have to drag me out when I leave.”
From Payson to Holbrook to Snowflake and beyond, members of the community pitched in to help the unfortunate fire-stranded. Many opened up their homes to thousands who needed help. Claysprings evacuee Lana’ Rexroat will soon deliver her fifth child and says, “The first day we were here I happened to go into pre-term labor and they offered a place for us to stay.”
Snowflake resident Ashley Davis says at one time he and his wife had 31 people staying in their home with three bedrooms. His wife Shauna says, “After you hit about 12 to 15 it just all blends together. You just find a place.”
The willingness of Church members to assist in the crisis extended all the way to Show Low where the local seminary building was transformed into the Fire Information Command Center. Fire Information Officer Danny Randall says, “I look on the walls there and I see there are pictures of Christ and say, well we need all the help we can get and with him looking over our shoulders I’m sure we’re going to put this monster to sleep.”
It now appears the monstrous fire is dying down but Church members are poised to assist the hundreds who lost their homes in the disaster. Under the direction of the Red Cross, Church leaders are taking daily trips to the fire with victims to comfort them as they view what’s left of their homes. When it comes to Church members helping neighbors rebuild their homes, Ashley Davis says, “You can count on it.”
As it often does in worldwide emergency situations, the Church sent a semi-trailer, loaded with food, clothing, blankets, and personal hygiene items from the Bishops Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City to three sites in Arizona Thursday: Payson, Eagar and Holbrook.
The Church has also donated 50,000 dollars in cash to the Red Cross in Arizona for their use in procuring food supplies for the evacuees. An additional 75,000 dollars has gone to assist five volunteer fire departments in the region.