Mormon Helping Hands Assist with Fire Cleanup in Idaho

Contributed By Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events

  • 17 July 2012

Nearly 1,700 Mormon Helping Hands volunteers from all over southeastern Idaho helped remove debris and do other cleanup on some 60 homeowner’s properties on Saturday, July 14, 2012, following a devastating fire in the area in June. Photo by Ben Fisher.

“As far as helping those in need, I think we’re right in line with what [the Savior has] taught us and asked us to do. We’re showing that the Church is embracing the welfare and the care of people not only worldwide, but right here locally as well.” —Larry Fisher, multistake public affairs director in Pocatello, Idaho

The bright yellow Mormon Helping Hands T-shirts—approximately 1,650 of them—provided a stark contrast against the charred hills of Pocatello, Idaho, USA, on Saturday, July 14, 2012, where volunteers gathered to help clean up debris following the “Charlotte” fire, which ignited on June 28, 2012. Efforts involved members of the community and included representation from more than 150 wards throughout the southeastern part of the state.

The morning began at 7:30 a.m. at Century High School, where volunteers arrived and were assigned to work on one of 60 properties whose owners had registered for cleanup assistance. Some of the area affected by the disaster was government land, but the majority of it was privately owned property. Most homes and outbuildings (barns, sheds, and other structures not connected to homes) in the path of the fire were destroyed—nearly 100 structures altogether, said Larry Fisher, multistake public affairs director in Pocatello. It was in those areas that volunteers focused their efforts, hauling away debris.

“We wanted to be there to help the property owners and support them,” said Brother Fisher, “not only emotionally, but also physically, by helping them clean up some of the debris.”

Ultimately, 400 tons of that debris were collected and taken to the local landfill. Because of the large number of vehicles taking debris to the landfill, some volunteers had to wait up to an hour in line to unload. But even so, one landfill official said, everyone was polite, which helped the project turn out well.

Relief efforts also involved working under the direction of local government agencies in cutting down juniper trees because they pose an additional fire hazard. (Juniper trees that catch fire can emit an intense flame several stories high.) The trunks and root systems of the junipers were left in place to help prevent erosion. In other places, volunteers laid the cut branches across the burned hillsides to help slow precipitation as it rolls downhill, again helping to prevent erosion.

John McKay was among the property owners who signed up for help from Mormon Helping Hands. Although Mr. McKay, who is not a member of the Church, initially felt some apprehension about receiving help from strangers, he later said, expressing his appreciation, “I’m feeling a lot better today than I did when I went to bed last night.”

Another property owner not of the LDS faith commented on how much the young men who volunteered their time impressed them. Even 12- to 14-year-old boys, he said, were working “like men.”

While most volunteers helped with debris removal, others helped with the effort by coordinating arrivals at the high school’s parking lot, handling the registration process for both property owners and volunteers, overseeing communications via ham radio, providing support vehicles, offering medical attention to those injured in the cleanup process, and providing a number of other services.

“Mormon Helping Hands has done several projects in the area over the last few years,” Brother Fisher said. “The community is becoming more and more familiar with us. We’re known around here as a resource that gets things done, and the community is appreciative and supportive of our cause.

“And the nice thing is that we work with the community—we don’t just come in and take over,” he added. This project, for instance, involved coordination with government agencies (including several environmental agencies) and local law enforcement and emergency response groups.

“The community has been amazing,” said Brother Fisher, citing grassroots-level fundraisers and assistance from larger organizations like Deseret Industries, the Red Cross, and United Way. “People’s response hasn’t surprised me, but it has reconfirmed how great the people in our community—all of them—are.

“In terms of the saving aspect of His mission, we can’t do what the Savior did with His Atonement,” he continued. “But as far as helping those in need, I think we’re right in line with what He’s taught us and asked us to do. We’re showing that the Church is embracing the welfare and the care of people not only worldwide, but right here locally as well.”