People and Places
March 1971

“People and Places,” New Era, Mar. 1971, 40

People and Places

Alta Loma, California—The following report tells what it was like to be in the middle of one of the biggest West Coast fires of recent years. It is from the students of the Alta Loma (California) Institute of Religion:

“The recent September–October 1970 Meyer or Lytle Creek fire in San Bernardino County, the worst fire to date in the history of our region, has proven to be an unforgettable experience for many of us. Fanned by the Santa Ana winds, the spark from a carelessly thrown firecracker produced a devastating blaze that refused to be quieted for over three weeks. The fire consumed 33,920 acres of forest, caused over $15 million of watershed damage, and destroyed five private homes.

“Assistance in fighting the fire was required from forty-one local city fire departments as well as forestry personnel from California, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. Help also came from Indian firefighters in those areas.

“With a detached attitude, we watched the fire burn for several days on the mountain range that lies north of our Chaffey Community College. We thought it would never get to us. In the words of Brent Bliss, one of eight institute students who stayed to help protect our new elev-en-month-old institute building, ‘I thought it was a big joke. But then we watched the fire run down across the foothills. It came faster than anything I had ever seen.’

“On Thursday, October 1, the days of ‘spectator’ fascination were over. A fifty-to sixty-foot wall of flame raced unmercifully toward us. We were in the center of its path. Some officials estimated the fire’s speed at fifty to seventy miles per hour. Duff Snider, another institute student, said, ‘In the instant it took me to turn around, the fire was blown across the four-lane highway and had engulfed the entire north side of a building. It must have traveled 350 yards in a matter of seconds.’

“Almost instantaneously the fire surrounded the institute building, licking up the dry brush that encompassed our property. Suddenly we were alone; moments before, CBS, NBC, and ABC television newsmen had been in and out of our building, using phones, taking pictures, and asking questions. Now the Alta Loma Institute of Religion building was shared by only nine—eight students and our institute director, David Garner. As Brent Bliss later related, the firemen watching us from a distance called over their bullhorn, ‘It’s no use! Leave the building! It will burn!’

“The noise was deafening, as if we were completely surrounded by great jet engines. To breathe was labor, even though we had wet clothes wrapped around our heads; and our clothing, which we had soaked with water from some hoses, became dry in a matter of minutes from the terrific heat.

“Fierce winds ripped at our bodies, making standing possible only with great effort. Flying debris of all sizes and shapes filled the air, and smoke so saturated the area that visibility beyond a few feet was impossible. We worked in the light from the blazing wall of flame surrounding us. No words can describe our feelings; no thought is so imaginative that it can capture the truth of the reality we shared.

“At this moment of peril, our whole institute building was threatened by an ominous ball of fire that seemed ready to snuff us out. Jim Thomas, who was on the roof, reported, ‘I saw a great ball of fire come down toward us from overhead, but as I started to cover up with a blanket, the fire retreated—just like a movie film being run backward.’

“We heard, at this point, an audible explosion. A great eruptive force from ‘inside our ball of fire’ burst upward and outward, driving back the fire on all four sides of the building.

“Only minutes earlier, Norm Perdue had driven his car down the street to get it away from the fire. Returning, he saw it this way: ‘As I ran back to the institute, it was completely obscured with smoke and fire. I thought that perhaps it wasn’t even standing, but suddenly the smoke cleared away and the fire burned on toward the west, and there it was, still standing! It reminded me of when Francis Scott Key wrote the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ after the British had attacked Fort McHenry—when, after a night of fighting and bombing between the two military forces, Key was thrilled to see the flag still flying.

“A custodian who had been on the roof of a building at the college told us, ‘It was fantastic! I wouldn’t have believed it! I just knew you were gone. But the fire jumped over you and went on. I can’t understand it. You sure were lucky!’ We pointed upward and said, ‘Yes, we sure were.’

“We who had remained to help were deeply impressed with the answer to a prayer voiced by one of our students earlier, while many of us knelt together in one of the classrooms. What was amazing to everyone was that surrounding our institute was a ten- to twenty-five-foot ring of brush and undergrowth that did not burn! The explosive force within the ball of fire had simply stopped the fire in its tracks.

“Some of our nonmember friends who had been taking institute classes with us said they couldn’t believe it. For some of them, it was the only faith-and-prayer type experience they had ever had in their lives.

“We had a testimony meeting afterward with our students. Everyone’s expression was different, but the testimony was the same: Heavenly Father had heard our prayers and answered them in such a way that all of us could see the result. The memory of the fire seems to most of us just like a vivid dream or a dramatic experience of nightmare proportion. But the feelings of testimony and conviction linger on, building trust and love in our Heavenly Father.”

Jerusalem, Israel—It is an unusual experience to be a Latter-day Saint in Israel, but David Galbraith, a native of Raymond, Alberta, Canada, is studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Here is his report of what it is like to be a Latter-day Saint in Israel:

“There are many interesting and exciting aspects to a life in Israel today. Certainly, one attraction is the pioneering spirit. This is mostly evident at the kibbutzim, but this same feeling permeates the whole country. It is always gratifying to find someone who is willing to sacrifice personal comfort for the well-being of others, and much more so when an entire nation is prepared to forgo the amenities of life for the common good.

“Israelis pay some of the highest taxes in all the world. The defense budget is by far the highest, calculated on a per capita basis. Private cars are pure luxury, and even television has just come into being in the last two years. Salaries are held down by government regulations, and the cost of living continues to rise.

“What is happening in Israel seems of greater significance for Latter-day Saints than it is for many Jews, the majority of whom see the gathering and return of the Jewish people and the establishment of the state only in social and political terms. Even the believing Christian world is caught up in a controversy as to when and/or if the gathering of Judah will take place.

“There are about thirty members of the Church living here, and we meet on a regular basis at the Darrel Hicken home in Herzliyah, just outside Tel Aviv. As a group we often travel to places of religious interest to hold our meetings. We have met in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Jericho, and beside the Dead Sea; and recently we had a very spiritual baptismal service at the Jordan River. Israeli law does not permit any Christian denomination to proselyte, and so until a way is opened up, we resign ourselves to inviting friends and associates to our meetings.

“Our friends and families frequently express their concern for our safety and well-being in this war-torn land, but we continually reassure them that the hostilities are pretty well confined to Israel’s borders and that life in the cities is normal and undisturbed. And should anything serious erupt, it is only a few minutes’ flight to any of the Mediterranean countries of Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, or Italy.”

Students at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University