“Saints Reach Out in Wake of Wildfires,” Ensign, Jan. 2004, 75–76
In true Brigham Young fashion, members of the elders quorum in the Redlands First Ward, Redlands California Stake, set aside the lesson one Sunday in October and organized the troops. From the windows of their Sunday School classrooms they could see the flames of a raging wildfire lapping the hills not far from their building.
“Most of us saw the flames coming down the mountains, coming near our neighbors, and we just wanted to do something,” said Robert Elkins, Redlands First Ward elders quorum president.
During elders quorum, the group decided to make lunches for weary firefighters and evacuees. After church, home teachers called upon families to prepare meals, and “within 45 minutes to an hour, we were able to fill up a truck and a minivan with what was on hand,” Brother Elkins reported. The meals were delivered to a fire command center in nearby San Bernardino and to a local Red Cross shelter.
This was just one of several examples of Latter-day Saints organizing in formal and informal ways to reach out during fires that ravaged southern California in late October 2003. The fires, stretching from Simi Valley to the U.S.-Mexico border, burned more than 740,000 acres and 3,600 homes and took the lives of 22 people.
About 400,000 Latter-day Saints in the area were affected by the fires, with 67 families losing their homes. All Church members and missionaries were reported safe, and no Church buildings were damaged.
On 2 November, after the area had suffered a long week of devastation, President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy, President of the North America West Area, visited with Saints in the San Diego area, and Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Ned B. Roueché of the Seventy, Second Counselor in the North America West Area Presidency, visited with Saints in the San Bernardino area. The leaders brought messages of comfort and commendation.
President Packer told members that they may have lost their houses, but they did not lose their homes. He said that as they work to keep their families together through this trial, they would find resilience and resourcefulness they did not know they had.
In his visit with the Saints, Elder Eyring commented, “Your children will always remember how you have acted and how you have handled this terrible situation.”
Teaming up with relief organizations, the Church made extensive contributions. It provided large cash donations to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army and opened its bishops’ storehouses in the area to provide food for firefighters and displaced families. The Church also loaned tables and chairs from local meetinghouses to the efforts at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, a gathering point for 5,000 evacuees.
“It is a very sad situation, but there has been a lot of effort to rally and assist,” said Garry Flake, director of humanitarian emergency response for the Church.
In the San Bernardino California Stake, where almost 1,000 Church members were evacuated and two families lost their homes, members helped feed evacuees gathered in a hangar at Norton Airbase, and missionaries and Relief Society sisters in the Victor Valley area (north of San Bernardino) garnered attention from the local press as they prepared and served hot meals for several consecutive evenings to evacuees staying at a local high school.
In El Cajon and Santee (near San Diego), stakes had held an emergency preparedness training meeting only a day before the fires struck. Using the system taught just 24 hours earlier, Church members contacted 8,000 Saints in their area within 90 minutes, enabling safe evacuations. Preliminary counts indicated about 44 Latter-day Saint families in the San Diego area lost their homes.
Members also opened their homes to those of their wards and stakes who were evacuated, and missionaries were heavily involved in clean-up efforts.
“It’s just incredible how the Church works,” said Dale T. Poulsen, president of the San Bernardino California Stake, whose own home was threatened by the fires. President Poulsen said he received several phone calls from stake presidents throughout the Los Angeles area asking how their stakes could be of assistance. “It’s just amazing to see the love and concern to see that the Saints are provided for—and not just the Saints, but the whole community.”
Sonja Eddings Brown and Cray Carlson contributed to this report.