Just after 2:00 a.m. on October 26, 2003, Daniel Olsen, 17, hears his mother telling him that a wildfire is less than a mile away. “I jumped out of bed, but the power was out, so I couldn’t find my shoes,” he remembers. “My younger sister, Kelli, yelled, ‘What good are shoes if you’re dead?’” He grabbed his gym bag and ran out of the house barefoot.
Outside, Daniel can smell the smoke, see the oak trees silhouetted against the orange sky, and feel the ash in 50-mile-per-hour (80-km-hr.) winds swirling around him. “We started driving down Wildcat Canyon and said a prayer,” he says. “My mom honked the horn to wake others. I sang, ‘We are as the armies of Helaman’ 1 as loud as I could. It made me feel better.”
A few hours later, the fire is burning 12,000 acres (4,800 ha) an hour, creating its own weather system of wind and fire tornados. The 150-foot-high (46 m) flames consume the dry brush and trees as the fire climbs uphill to 12-year-old Matthew Porter’s home. He and his family had left earlier. The flames roll in the wind against the wooden eaves of the roof until they take hold. Soon the ceiling collapses into the house. The curtains, bedding, furniture, piano, and books burn. The walls fall inward. The metal garage door sags, and the tires on an ATV melt. Amid the inferno, a wrench hangs on the fire hydrant at the end of the driveway, unused.
Daniel’s and Matthew’s houses were among the 2,232 lost during 11 days as this fire, named the Cedar Fire, burned more than 280,000 acres (113,300 ha) and killed 14 people, most of whom died in Wildcat Canyon. Twelve other fires were burning at this time in southern California, forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate.
Feeling Closer to the Lord
Daniel and Matthew, like other LDS youth affected by the fires, are emerging stronger as they learn that the gospel eases suffering during a crisis.
“Our relationship with the Savior survives everything,” says Daniel, who found comfort in the words “He that is righteous shall be righteous still; he that is happy shall be happy still” (Morm. 9:14).
“When you realize your home is gone, it’s overwhelming,” says Matthew. “You don’t think you can do it, but you do it anyway.”
Joe Tidwell, 16, is in the same ward as Matthew. “Our family decided on the day after we lost our house to focus on the good,” Joe says. “We’ve tried to do that every day since.”
A week later the fire was still burning when Latter-day Saints gathered to hear President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speak. He pronounced an apostolic blessing upon them. After the meeting, he shook hands with every person, including 16-year-old Tori Gross.
“President Packer reminded us that we lost our houses, not our homes,” Tori says. “When a boy at school said he was homeless, I said, ‘You’re not homeless, you’re houseless.’ Our house burned to the ground and so did part of the new house we are building. But our family survived. Since the fire, I feel closer to Heavenly Father, and I rely on the gospel more.”
Elsie Smith, 17, whose house didn’t burn, spent nearly every Saturday for several months helping clean up sites where houses were burned. “Kids from other stakes came every week to help,” she says. “Only 2 of the more than 600 homes that burned in our ward area belonged to members, but we helped everyone.”
A. J. Schumann, 17, spent six hours helping his dad and neighbors clear a 30-yard firebreak in an effort to save his and other houses. “It’s amazing to see how people rally together in a crisis,” he says. “Ward members, whose homes were not in danger, came to help us. After we evacuated, somehow two of our friends made their way back and hosed down our burning fences. All eight houses survived, but I’ve learned people matter more than things.”
Smoke and ash filled the air, turning the sun red. Parker Boyack, 15, could see the smoke and orange glow in the sky. After seeing on television damage caused by the fire, he wanted to help. The next day he went with his mother to the evacuation center, where hundreds of families had spent the night.
“People were so shocked and scared,” he says. “I took down cots and folded blankets, then I sorted the donated food. I played with the children, fed the birds and cats, and took a big dog to the park to run. I think I made some difference. I knew we should help people, but this changed my life.”
Comfort from the Scriptures
Daniel, Matthew, Tori, Elsie, and A. J. all faced the fire and had moments when they were scared and not sure they were going to make it. Though the outcomes varied, these LDS youth dealt with the challenge in the same way—they drew upon prayer, family, and the scriptures.
Elsie came to the understanding that we all have good and bad things happen to us. “Your Father which is in heaven,” the Lord taught, “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Elsie says, “It’s how we handle what happens that is important.”
Matthew bears testimony of what is said in D&C 68:6: “Be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you.”
Matthew says, “This experience brought out strength in me. I feel closer to Heavenly Father and have a better understanding of how He works. Even though we felt the Spirit when we prayed together in the garage before we left, our house still burned. I learned Heavenly Father moves in mysterious ways. He loves us. I never doubted that. I don’t blame Him for what happened.”
As these youth learned, no trial is beyond the Lord’s healing touch. The Savior will “bind up the brokenhearted,” give “comfort to all that mourn,” and give us “beauty for ashes” (Isa. 61:1–3).
Putting the gospel into practice really does work. These LDS youth drew upon their faith in Jesus Christ and came out stronger. We can do the same.
An Army of Missionaries
About 180 missionaries in the California Carlsbad Mission divided their time between proselyting and helping fire victims. For a month they shoveled ash and debris, hefted sandbags, and helped at evacuation centers.
One elder said, “My shoulders are sore, my back hurts, and my fingernails are dirty from dirt and ash, but my heart is full.”
The reputation of the missionaries’ hard work grew. An engineering official, assessing his needs for a sandbagging project, said with a smile, “We’ll need 195 men or 5 Mormon missionaries.”
In one area where more than 300 homes burned, the residents honored the firemen and the missionaries. One resident said, “These missionaries worked longer and harder than anyone else.” Then the missionaries sang, “Because I Have Been Given Much,” (Hymns, no. 219). After the song, the missionaries and residents hugged one another with tears in their eyes.
Said one elder, “We showed others that though we are young, the gospel guides our lives whether we are teaching the gospel or digging out the remains of a home.”
Ten elders worked around-the-clock at a Red Cross evacuation center. After four days, its senior official called mission president Stephen M. Studdert and lovingly referred to these elders as “Mormon angels.”
“I cannot think of a more accurate term to describe the Christlike goodness of all our missionaries,” says President Studdert. “They served selflessly, often ignoring personal physical exhaustion, to bring a measure of gladness to those in need.”
Preparedness Tips from San Diego Teens
Have cash on hand.
Send copies of family pictures to friends.
Keep your shoes by the bed.
Keep your preparedness kit in your car.
Have a plan. Know where you will go if you need to evacuate.
Take photos of your home, inside and out.