Community support ‘awe-inspiring’ during recent Utah fires

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Sandbags have replaced the fire trucks in Brent Hirz’s neighborhood, and he waits each day to see how much rain will fall. It’s not a scenario he imagined in the early afternoon on Sept. 13, when he got a pre-recorded phone call from Elk Ridge City telling him the town was being put on a pre-evacuation warning. It said to prepare in case a mandatory evacuation became necessary.

He wasn’t home when he got the call, and he said he was not too concerned at the time, as the Coal Hollow fire had just occurred somewhat nearby and it hadn’t gotten very close to his city.

That afternoon, he continued on with his day as usual, running errands and picking up his daughter from school. He noticed the fire was coming closer as the day went on. He also realized that the wind was bad and was blowing the fire towards Elk Ridge.

Once he returned home around 5 p.m., his family started to get their suitcases packed in case they needed to leave. Hirz called his aunt, Julie Roughan, around 5:30 p.m., told her the situation and asked if his family could stay at her house in Provo if evacuation became mandatory.

The call to evacuate came only about half an hour later.

Brent texted his aunt, “We’re now under mandatory evacuation. Can we come over?” She readily agreed, and Brett’s family left their home with their few belongings and headed to Provo.

As the family drove towards Elk Ridge Drive, which goes down into Salem, they could see flames starting to come over the top of the mountain near the south end of Elk Ridge.

Brent, his wife and their three young children stayed with Roughan for the next 10 days.  “Without hesitation we wanted to take them in,” Roughan said. “Our hearts went out to them … it was a scary time for them, and we were happy that we could help them.”

Hirz’s home was one of 2,000 homes that were evacuated across the cities of Elk Ridge, Woodland Hills and Salem, so their story is just one of many.

Incredibly, of the approximately 6,000 individuals evacuated, not a single evacuated family needed to seek housing at Salem Hills High School, which the Red Cross had set up as a center for evacuated individuals to stay, do laundry and receive food and supplies.

This center stayed open only for a matter of days because, surprisingly, no one was staying there, as everyone who was evacuated had made other arrangement for living conditions.

Brent mentioned that most of the people he talked to could stay with family during the evacuation. Others stayed with friends and some even stayed with kind strangers who volunteered to share their homes with evacuees.

The Red Cross kept a list of people who offered up their homes for evacuees. “This list was always growing, and it was never depleted,” Spanish Fork City Manager Seth Perrins said. “This was really cool from a disaster standpoint, that people made their homes available and continued to make their homes available to total strangers.”

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted on Sept. 16: “Update from the Red Cross noting a few problems: 1) Big waiting list … of people that want to HELP and provide shelter for others. 2) TOO MANY donations. Please stop for now. 3) 6,000 people evacuated and no one staying at the shelter. Well done Utah. Well done.”

Though the situation seemed to surprise government officials, thousands of Utahns who were not being evacuated sprang into action as soon as the evacuations began.

“It was pretty amazing to see how the community responded”, said Spanish Fork Public Information Officer Scott Aylett.

He said fire crews and the incident management team they were working with repeatedly told them how astounded they were at the community support they constantly felt. Firefighters told Aylett they haven’t seen that kind of mobilization anywhere else.

Aylett said he received at least a dozen inquiries every single day by phone, email and Facebook from Utah residents asking how they could contribute to evacuees and the firefighters.

“Often times we had to say, ‘You know what, we have enough of what we need right now, (but) we thank you for your willingness to contribute.’”

The Nebo School District opened their warehouse to hold the thousands of donations that were coming in. Evacuees could go into the warehouse and grab anything they needed for free.

Hirz’s family went to the warehouse a few times and got snacks, drinks and lunch food for his daughter’s school lunches. They also got drawing supplies for the kids, diaper cream, baby formula, paper plates and utensils.

“They had virtually everything one would need while evacuated, and the generosity of the people who donated so much blew me away,” Hirz said.

The support came from both individuals and businesses in the surrounding communities. Aylett said city officials received phone calls from multiple fast food chains and restaurants who asked if they could host a dinner for evacuees or for the firefighters. Companies reached out saying things like, “Hey, we make ice cream sandwiches, can we bring down a truck for the firefighters and provide dessert for their dinner one evening?”

Aylett said the support and the requests to help out were constant. Every day was filled with, “Hey how can I help, how can I help, how can I help?”

Leann Fox, public information officer for the Type III that was fighting the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires, said she felt the support from Utah residents as well. “Oh my word, donations like crazy,” Fox said. “The whole community just like stopped by and dropped off loads of stuff for firefighters and 500 thank you cards. It just has been so great.”

According to Fox, this fire season was terrible — one of the worst seasons Utah has ever seen — so all of the donations and support really helped to boost the firefighters’ morale after long months of hard work.

Perrins agreed that Utah residents know how to show up for their community in a time of need.

“I don’t say this to downplay what was accomplished, because it was amazing,” Perrins said. “It is amazing but not surprising because that is the kind of people that are here. Great people.”

This graphic shows some of the different statistics from the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek Fires. (Quincy Wilks)
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