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‘When disaster strikes, everyone pulls together’

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HAMILTON, Mont. — Heather Lane woke up in the night with an impression to update her family's 72-hour emergency preparedness kits. Acting on her prompting the next morning, she replaced the food and medicine and put the right size clothing in each child's bag.

Two weeks later, a firestorm rolled over the top of the mountain, charred the trees and structures in its path and headed straight for her home. She had just enough time to load the children, grab her kits and evacuate her Connor, Mont., home. Her husband, Darrell, and her sister on vacation from Georgia, spent the rest of the day fighting the approaching flames. Without electricity to engage the well water, they used 25 or more 2-liter bottles of water from their food storage to douse hot spots of fire around the perimeter of the home. A fire truck eventually arrived to spray the burning trees and the danger subsided. For now the Lane family, members of the Darby Ward in the Stevensville Montana Stake, are safe at home, but they know the danger is not completely over.

"Things are still smoldering and the wind could ignite hot spots at any moment," said Sister Lane. "We feel very blessed to have been protected so far."

"We understand that the fires will not be contained for some time," said President Robert Wischmeier who leads the Stevensville Stake in Western Montana. The stake's boundaries encompass the Bitterroot Valley where almost 300,000 acres continue to burn. By the end of the first two weeks in August, thousands of families had been evacuated for a time. In the boundaries of the Darby Ward, 52 homes and 20 other buildings have burned. So far, only one member of the Church has lost everything.

"You hear of forest fires all over the country, but to witness something that could take away your entire community, it's hard to put your feelings into words," said Penny Strandberg of the Darby Ward. "So my journal has been my video camera."

From her home on the top of a rocky knoll she witnessed the inferno that was part of the Valley Complex fire. "I really wasn't scared until I saw that blaze they classified as a fire storm," said Sister Strandberg. "It was wicked as it came over the mountain and shot fireballs ahead of itself. To hear the roar and feel the heat as it sucked oxygen out of the air, I've never experienced anything like it." She estimated that the firestorm she witnessed moved about three miles every 20 minutes. The reported 70 mph winds that day didn't help the situation at all.

Johnny Meuchel, a member of the Hamilton Ward, was in Darby all week working with family members to build fire lines around the Rennaker Cattle Ranch. "The ground is just like walking on corn flakes," he said. "Once that fire crests this ridge, nothing will stop it, but for now, we'll keep trying."

Unity among the Saints has kept many members from despair. "We got a call Sunday night from Bishop [Ferris] Tolman," said Brother Lane. "He was checking on us, offering help and resources if we needed it. It was kind of a pep talk. It wasn't 30 minutes later when the fire came over the hill and engulfed our property. I will always appreciate the way the Spirit guided him to check on us and give us the strength we were going to need."

It was the thick smoke and heat that forced the Van Wey family to leave their home in Victor, Mont. "We couldn't breathe," said Kristan Van Wey, a member of the Stevensville 2nd Ward. "It was 98 degrees in our home and we couldn't open windows for relief. So we made one call and within an hour, a group from the elders quorum was at our house packing up everything," she said.

Although their home and nearby restaurant have been spared from the dangerous flames, the Strandbergs have been on watch. "I haven't left my home for two weeks and have never been more grateful for our food and water storage," said Sister Strandberg.

On the first Sunday in August, every stake in the state of Montana joined together in a fast for rain. "A few days later we got the rain and the weather cooled which slowed the fires down and cleared the skies for a time, but we sure could use more," said President Wischmeier. "I listen to my 11-year-old pray for rain and that moves me," he said. "It is something else when the faith of a stake can extend to the children."

From the beginning, the Hamilton Ward leadership was in daily contact with the American Red Cross which set up a shelter at the junior high school. Not only has each ward donated commodities from the Bishop's Storehouse, but members have volunteered their time and talents at the shelter every day. "We've had many members there serving meals, answering phones and organizing donations as they arrived," said Hamilton's Relief Society President, Lynne Hayes.

Young women from the Hamilton Ward have gone every day to read and to play games with small children whose families have been evacuated. "One of the nicest things that happened to me since we've been at the shelter is when a young LDS girl came and rocked my baby while I put my older kids to sleep," said one evacuated mother. "It's impossible to get kids to sleep in this situation, but that night it worked."

Brian Harrison, a member of Darby Ward's bishopric, spent two weeks helping various families evacuate their homes.

"Luckily, in Darby, everyone has had a place to go and the shelter in town was closed for a time because no one needed it. We were able to take care of our own."

In May, Margie Jackson accepted the calling of Family and Personal Preparedness and Emergency Specialist in the Hamilton Ward. She had no idea what she would be facing this summer.

"By following the teaching of Church leaders, we are more prepared, we have some idea what to do, we have resources, food storage. We're organized enough to know our priorities and take what we can't replace," said Sister Jackson.

The Darby Ward, with a 100-mile radius, had a few more obstacles to overcome in establishing direct communication with every family. "It was especially hard when phone lines went down for five days," said executive secretary Kemp Comm. "So many people are isolated, so it was a little tough to ensure every member was safe or safely evacuated. ."

Stacie Rennaker was recently called to be the Relief Society president in Darby. "It's been hard to do everything a Relief Society president should do when I'm evacuated myself," she said. "I opened my home for as long as I could stay there and now I just keep checking messages and checking on people. There is potential for our whole ward to be evacuated and in danger at some level."

"Overall, we've had a lot of success taking care of our members," said Darby Ward Bishop Ferris Tolman. "The aftermath is going to be a lot worse — fixing fences, filing insurance claims, building new homes, restocking shelves and replacing clothes," he said. "When disaster strikes, everyone pulls together. We can see that the human heart still exists in our community and that gives us a lot of hope."