“Acts of Kindness amid California Ashes,” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 70
As members of the Auburn California Stake assessed the damage from September’s disastrous “‘49er Fire” in California’s historic Gold Rush country, they talked about the positive side, too.
Out of chaos and heartbreak came acts of kindness. Latter-day Saints reached out to other members in need, and they touched the lives of nonmembers as well.
The fire left a blackened waste of 33,500 acres of forest and ranch country. Piles of ashes and twisted metal debris are pathetic reminders of the 190 homes that stood in the path of the inferno. Three of those homes belonged to members of the Church.
Damage ran into millions of dollars in and around Penn Valley, Lake Wildwood, and Rough And Ready, California, near the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento.
The wind-whipped blaze began on a Sunday morning when a trash fire got out of control. No one could foresee the devastation that would take place over the next few days, but by that Sunday evening a communication center had been established at the Nevada City LDS meetinghouse. Workers there kept in touch with members whose homes were threatened. As many of these people evacuated their homes, other members stood by, offering food and lodging but helpless to do more for the moment.
For several days no one could enter the fire area because of the danger, but on Saturday, some two hundred Church members gathered at a park near the damaged area, bringing rakes, shovels, picks, chain saws, wheelbarrows, and pickup trucks. John Klein, a member of the stake high council, organized the workers into teams with captains, following the procedure practiced in early Church history.
Throughout the day, they worked at fifteen sites in the fire-blackened area. Many cleared away burned shrubs and debris, while others dug drainage ditches behind the homes on burned hillsides to prevent erosion. Some crews worked all day, replacing water pipes to restore plumbing systems for two families.
Many nonmember fire victims appreciated the unexpected help of LDS volunteers.
One crew didn’t realize it, but they were an answer to prayer, according to a story heard later by another member.
A family in Penn Valley returned to the area to find their ranch badly damaged by the fire. They had lost their barn, outbuildings, and fences, and their animals were scattered. Surveying the damage, the woman exclaimed, “O God, help us!” Her husband responded: “God will have to help us get through this.” When a man knocked on their door early that Saturday morning and announced that he had brought a crew from the LDS Church to help them, the wondering woman gratefully accepted. As the crew members went to work, she called to her still-sleeping husband, “Get up! God is at the door.”
At one site, while workers sifted through ashes, a woman asked, “Who are you people?” After Bishop Ronald Coleman of the Auburn Third Ward explained, she asked two members of the teachers quorum to sift carefully in the area where her jewelry box should have been. Everyone rejoiced when they managed to recover her diamond wedding ring.
As this crew of twenty-three finished up at their last home site, a Sacramento television news team showed up. The workers found themselves on the 6:00 P.M. news that night.
Back at the park where the volunteers gathered, the stake Relief Society served a meal to the tired workers. The stories they exchanged made it clear that the Church’s immediate response had lifted the spirits of those in need and had provided important physical help.
Under the direction of stake president Donald K. McCauley, stake members continued to provide assistance in the days that followed, giving members ample opportunity for compassionate service in the wake of disaster.
Correspondent: Dorothy Varney, Auburn stake public communications director, assisted by Laurel Paul.