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LDS farmers make stand against forest fires

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Dozens of LDS farmers from Idaho literally came between forest fires that have ravaged nearly a million acres in Yellowstone Park and this western Montana resort town on the edge of the park.

Bringing irrigation equipment from their fields, the farmers - with help from other Church members and townspeople - on Sept. 2-3 laid 14 miles of pipes and sprinkling systems along the town's eastern and southern sides. The sprinklers, with water pumped from the Madison River, dampened the tinder-dry forest floor, creating a wet band between this community of some 700 residents and fires rapidly approaching the town.So successful and impressive were Church members' efforts to defend West Yellowstone that U.S. Forestry officials overseeing a 141,920 acre fire in the vicinity of Old Faithful telephoned Church leaders for help on Sept. 5.

The forestry officials requested that a similar irrigation system be installed at Old Faithful, the geyser that is the park's most famous landmark. By 5 p.m., Sept. 6, more than a mile of irrigation pipes were laid and in operation at Old Faithful, to help protect power lines and an electrical substation.

The farmers and other Church members from several regions in Eastern Idaho were marshaled into action by telephone calls from priesthood leaders between 10 p.m. and midnight Thursday, Sept. 1. Upon receiving the calls, farmers disassembled irrigation pipes from their fields and, by early Friday morning, had hauled them to West Yellowstone, on the edge of America's oldest national park.

Local civic and U.S. Forestry officials approved the plan for the extensive irrigation system. Special permission was granted for water to be pumped from the Madison River, inside the park's boundaries.

Church members were called to help protect West Yellowstone after it was announced on Sept. 1 that the town would be in great danger if weather conditions did not change within 24 hours. Fires had been in the area since about July 22, but initially townspeople felt they were in no danger. When winds shifted, however, the town was threatened. Firefighters had been in the park for two months, but they gave little hope of being able to control the fires before they reached West Yellowstone. In addition to the professional firefighters, townspeople had at their disposal four water trucks, three of them provided by farmers, but the trunks would be puny defense against two out-of-control fires.

Clyde Seeley, a counselor in the Ashton Idaho Stake presidency, a West Yellowstone resident and businessman, felt the time had come for aggressive action to protect the town's homes and businesses. About a week earlier, Pres. Seeley had spoken with stake Pres. Ed Clark, regarding a defense of West Yellowstone.

Working under Pres. Clark's direction, Pres. Seeley contacted the regional representative, Elder Clayter Forsgren of the St. Anthony Idaho Region, which includes the Ashton Idaho Stake. Elder Forsgren then contacted members of the North America Northwest Area presidency in Salt Lake City, outlining a plan that could be put into action should the need arise. With approval from the area presidency, Elder Forsgren contacted other regional representatives in the area.

Elder Forsgren apprised them of the emergency plan, and asked that a survey of equipment and volunteers be conducted so members in the regions would be able to respond quickly.

With a 9 p.m. telephone call from Pres. Seeley to Pres. Clark on Sept. 1, the plan was put into action. By 11 p.m., Pres. Seeley was informed that volunteers with their equipment were on their way to West Yellowstone. By 9 a.m., Friday, Sept. 2, nearly 150 men were at work. Relief Society sisters and young women from the West Yellowstone Branch and other units in the stake prepared and served meals to volunteers.

Pres. Seeley went home that night, impressed with how members and others "all put their shoulders together" in a massive effort to protect the town. "I thought about the Mormon pioneers, how they battled the elements. I thought about their faith, their perserverance, their endurance. We were like a group of thos pioneers. We had fire on the south of us and we had fired on the east of us, just a couple of miles away. We were fighting to save our homes and the homes of our neighbors. I wondered what else we could do. Then I thought about how the pioneers were organized - with captains of 10 and captains of 50."

Early Saturday morning, volunteers were organized into groups of 10 men, with one captain, or crew boss, over each group. Captain of 50 supervised work of five roups of 10. Communications flowed smoothly; everyone knew exactly what needed to be done; little time was wasted. The work on Saturday was reinforced by new volunteers, including two bus loads of Ricks college students.

Elder L. Lionell Kendrick of the First Quorum of the Seventy and a counselor in the North America Northwest Area presidency attended meetings at the West Yellowstone Branch on Saunday, Sept. 4. He assured members of the support of the area presidency and other General Authorities.

"It was a very tender experience to meet with those members," Elder Kendrick said. "I was impressed with their faith. They have struggled about two months with the fires that have burned in Yellowstone Park. It was marvelous to see what the priesthood can do under conditions of adversity.

"There has been a great bonding among members and others in the town as they have put their shoulders together in the face of such a trememdous task.

They have a `can-do' attitude. When the odds were stacked against them, they had great faith they could do something to help themselves. They have fasted and prayed; and there is no doubt their whole plan of action was really inspired."

Elder Forsgren said, "It was a joy to see how well everybody worked. It's very comforting to know how people respond. It was especially touching to realize that just about everyuone of those farmers took equipment out of fields that are ready to be harvested, or might be in need of further irrigation. Some of them will likely have financial losses. But these farmers were not thinking about themselves."

West Yellowstone Branch Pres. Bill Schaap said just the efforts to lay sprinklers around the two threatened adges of town helped everyone "gain new hope. We feel like we have done something; we don't feel as helpless."