News Release

Volunteers Assist With Fire Recovery Efforts in the Western US

Church provides food, service and shelter in Oregon

Latter-day Saints are helping wildfire survivors in the Western United States rebuild their lives following the worst fire season on record. 

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Millions of acres have burned in California, Oregon and Washington. More than two dozen people have died in the fires. In Oregon, 10 people have lost their lives. 

Fast-moving fires destroyed more than 2,350 homes on Tuesday, September 8, 2020, in the Rogue Valley near Medford, Oregon, an area of the state with an already tight housing market. Church members have lost 65 homes with no loss of life. 

“We are grateful that the loss of life is not as bad as it could have been,” said Elder David L. Wright, an Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who lives in southern Oregon where some of the state’s worst devastation occurred the day after Labor Day. 

“This had given me a bird’s-eye view of the best of people,” said Deni Goodwin, a new Relief Society president in the Bear Creek Ward. “We’ve had cars donated, we’ve had money donated, we’ve had housing situations donated. People are so very good.” 

“The road ahead looks bright because we have each other,” said Don Anway, president of the Bear Creek Elders Quorum. “We come together, we support each other and we have our ward family and our stake family that’s supporting each other to get through this.” 

A Church meetinghouse in Medford was used briefly as a shelter for several dozen families, reported Alison Allen, compassionate service leader of the Bear Creek congregation. But the building was closed when the Jackson County Fair and Expo in Central Point opened its doors to evacuees after the Almeda fire destroyed neighborhoods in the communities of Phoenix and Talent. 

“It has been a devastating and unifying at the same time. All but two families at our ward were under a mandatory evacuation,” said Allen. 

Saturday morning, members of the Medford and Central Point Oregon Stakes gathered for a service project to help those who have lost homes. They put on yellow Helping Hands shirts and N95 face masks and grabbed fire kits to help families sift through the ashes on their properties to find anything of value.

Oregon Fires
Misty Pantle found her ring in the ashes of her burned-out home in Talent, Oregon, on Saturday, September 26, 2020. All rights reserved.

Misty Pantle of Talent hoped to find her ring and a knife that was special to her son because it belonged to his grandfather. By mid-morning, volunteers had found everything Pantle was looking for.

Meantime, Latter-day Saint youth from the Medford area met at the Expo to assemble additional fire kits for use in the recovery efforts.

Latter-day Saints Serve the Community 

Missionaries from the Church’s Oregon Eugene Mission showed up at the Expo to assist with the needs of those who were evacuated from their mostly mobile and manufactured homes. Two thousand people were on the grounds the first night. Some of the evacuees soon left the shelter to stay with family or friends. 

“My family lost their home,” said Roberto Corona-Gonzales, who was invited to stay in the home of the Taylor and Anne Cropper family in Medford, along with his mother, father and grandmother, after a brief stay at the Expo. 

The Croppers, a local Latter-day Saint family with five children, invited a displaced family of four to stay in their home. Both Taylor and Anne speak Spanish. 

“The family that came to stay with us doesn’t have any family around here,” said Taylor. 

“We have been blessed to have a big home,” said Anne, who is homeschooling her children. “I’ve had days where I thought, ‘This is really chaotic.’ But … it really doesn’t feel like a question that they should stay as long as they need to stay.” 

Missionaries Lend a Hand

Expo director Helen Funk was impressed when the missionaries showed up at the Expo to serve the community. 

“We didn't ask formally anywhere for [the missionaries]; they just came,” said Funk. “They truly made a difference.” 

The full-time missionaries filled many needed roles during the evacuations, including running the Expo’s main office.

“They were answering the phone for the Expo and they were answering people's questions, and I walked in; I turned around and looked at all the desks and everybody was covered with their PPE, and everybody was doing all the right things and [I] thought, ‘praise the Lord,’ and turned around and walked back out the door,” expressed Funk. 

“We're not skilled workers necessarily; we just came and are just trying to help in any little way we can,” said Elder Harrison Dahl, a missionary from Alpine, Utah, serving in the Oregon Eugene Mission. 

Elder Dahl and his companion, Elder Grayson Johnson from Pocatello, Idaho, helped collect and sort the many donations being dropped off from the community. 

“It got to the point that we had to start turning people away for some of the donations,” said Elder Johnson. “They didn't know what to do with everything.” 

Some of the young missionaries speak Spanish, including Elder Noah Afualo, who was reassigned to the mission after serving for 11 months in Mexico. 

“The heads of the Expo started recognizing that we spoke Spanish and so they were using us to help translate documents, to help put up signs in Spanish,” explained Elder Afualo.

The nearby cities of Phoenix and Talent—the most heavily impacted by the fires—have very large Hispanic populations.

Hermana Aubrey Bennett of Corona, California, was also called to serve as a Spanish-speaking missionary. “Knowing Spanish has really helped me. I have been able to translate for people, and that's been really fun.”

Hermana Bennett and her companion also spent time caring for the animals being housed at the county facility.

“We loaded alpacas into trailers, and llamas. I had never done that before. We cleaned lots of dog and cat items, assembled crates, locked lots of stalls for horses and fed cows, just a little bit of a farm life,” added Hermana Raquel Reese from Johnstown, Colorado.

The Expo, the site of the Jackson County Fair, concerts and other events, is now winding down its emergency operations. A Red Cross shelter there remains open.

Elder Wright said the Church has been working to strengthen its relationships in the community over the past several years with Jackson County government leaders and organizations in Medford such as the Red Cross, Rogue Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster (RV COAD) and United Way.  

“The members of the Church, the missionaries, the community members have worked so well together,” said Elder Wright. “It has been really miraculous to see how it has all come together and to work with the community in a way that I don’t think any of us foresaw.”

The Church is now viewed as a “reliable community partner,” he said.

“With COVID right now and with the destruction that has happened to this area because of the fires and the missionaries’ involvement with the service, they've met so many people that the community knows who they are, at a different level,” explained President Dean Cropper, second counselor in the Oregon Eugene Mission presidency.

“The main reason they are out here is to teach about the Savior and His gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.

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