“LDS Volunteers Help Save West Yellowstone,” Ensign, Nov. 1988, 110–11
When the out-of-control forest fire that destroyed more than a million acres in Yellowstone National Park last summer roared to within a mile of West Yellowstone, Montana, Church volunteers from Idaho and Montana installed a sprinkler system to protect the town.
The emergency effort was so successful that forest and park service officials requested that members install a similar system to protect the Old Faithful power station and a transmission line. The fire burned through the area, but the system prevented the destruction of the power complex.
Regional Representative Clayter Forsgren credits Clyde Seely, a counselor in the Ashton Idaho Stake presidency, with initiating the volunteer effort. President Seely is a West Yellowstone resident.
“When things began looking critical, President Seely called and explained the problem,” Brother Forsgren said. “He suggested asking farmers in the area to temporarily donate the sprinkling systems they use for irrigation, then using these sprinklers to protect the town.”
Brother Forsgren called Elder Rex C. Reeve of the First Quorum of the Seventy and President of the North America Northwest Area to gain approval for the plan. Brother Forsgren then called the stake presidents in his area and other Regional Representatives in surrounding areas to tell them of the need.
When the government supervisor of the fire-fighting area decided the danger to the town had become critical, the Church was ready.
“It was nine o’clock at night when the fire boss contacted President Seely with an emergency request for the sprinkler system,” Brother Forsgren said. “He called me, and together we began notifying other Church leaders. By eight o’clock the next morning there were truckloads of pipes and pumps on the way to West Yellowstone.”
“We could see the fire from the south clear to the north,” said President Seely’s wife, Linda. “There was a line of fire seven or eight miles long. You could see the flames jumping. It was really frightening.”
“We were told by the forest service people that the town could be engulfed in flame the next day if the weather pattern didn’t change,” President Seely recalled.
“The first trucks started to arrive about ten o’clock in the morning,” he said. “A hole was blasted in the river so that we had a reservoir of water available for our pumps. By three o’clock that afternoon, all of the pipes had been put together for the system that was to provide protection for the east side of town.
“When the water started spurting from the sprinkler heads, there was a great sigh of relief,” he said. “It smelled like rain—rain our forest hadn’t had for several months.”
“I was called late at night and asked if I would donate my pump to bring water to these people,” said Layle Cherry, an Ashton, Idaho, farmer who, like many others, volunteered not only his equipment but his time. “I said, ‘You bet!’ At five o’clock the next morning I put the pump I’d been using to water my grain and potatoes on a truck, and five hours later we were putting it into the river at West Yellowstone.”
“With just a few phone calls, they rallied a tremendous amount of material and ready help,” said West Yellowstone City Councilman Calvin Dunbar, speaking of the Church’s effort. “The organizational situation and the speed with which this fell together was very inspiring.”
Like many other nonmembers on the scene, Dunbar was impressed by the unselfish donation of time and farm equipment that was badly needed by the donors themselves.
More than twenty different stakes were involved in the relief effort, and somewhere between fourteen and twenty miles of sprinkler pipe were laid on two sides of the endangered town. The danger finally passed when the wind direction changed, but the emergency sprinkler system was credited with helping to keep the fire at bay.
“A couple of nights later I received another call from the North Fork fire people asking if we could have another system in place by eight o’clock the next morning at Old Faithful,” President Seely said.
The fire was threatening the power line and electrical substation there. If these facilities were destroyed, it would not be possible to repair them before winter, and there would be no power available to the area.
Again, both member and nonmember volunteers rallied, and the deadline was met. The sprinkler system not only wet the ground and flammable materials, but also raised the humidity in the area. This prevented the fire from gaining a foothold, even though the surrounding area burned.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the sprinkler system that was installed around the power line and the substation was the only thing that saved them,” said Dan Johnson, a Montana Power Company foreman. “The flames were burning twice as tall as the treetops.”
President Seely said that after the fire, people walked up to him on the streets of West Yellowstone to pat him on the back and offer thanks. “They were grateful that there was a group of people out there who cared enough to donate time and equipment to come to their aid, even though they didn’t know them,” he said.
“The LDS people provided the leadership, the equipment, and the love of each other and of the community that made this project succeed,” said William M. Witte, a nonmember volunteer from West Yellowstone. “Without that, it would not have worked.”