clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In our opinion: Utah absorbed 6,000 evacuees, proving civil society is alive and well

A helicopter drops retardant to battle the Pole Creek fire in Woodland Hills on Friday, Sept. 21.
A helicopter drops retardant to battle the Pole Creek fire in Woodland Hills on Friday, Sept. 21.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What does it take for a community to absorb 6,000 evacuees running from natural disaster? A strong civil society seems to do the trick.

Shortly after two fires started blazing across the hills south of Spanish Fork in Utah County in early September, evacuation orders went out to thousands of residents in the surrounding communities. Gov. Gary Herbert called the situation “a real emergency,” saying the fires could become the costliest loss in the history of the state should they devour the homes in harm’s way. As of last week, the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires had burned a total of 120,500 acres.

Where did nearly 6,000 residents go? Many found sanctuary with relatives, friends and even mere acquaintances, demonstrating the power of strong communities and a functioning civil society.

It’s hard to imagine many other places that can so readily take in thousands of people within a few days. High school gymnasiums, armories and sports arenas are typical go-to places during extreme weather events, but in this case it seems a unique number of close-by relatives and friends have largely replaced traditional shelters.

Much of the effort has been orchestrated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper. The church, known for its swift response to natural disasters and for providing aid around the world, has opened chapels for community gatherings and has enabled local leaders to coordinate efforts.

The response from the many Utahns was so overwhelming officials asked locals to stop donating to the Red Cross shelter, which closed shortly after evacuations took effect because of underutilization. And a Utah County public information officer announced on Twitter there was a waiting list for people willing to offer up their homes.

Organizations haven’t totally been overlooked, with some providing shelter, food and resources to those who in need, and other evacuees have stayed in hotels covered by their insurance plans. But it’s abundantly clear Utah’s civil society is alive and well.

Yet, a growing technological isolation threatens to undermine the framework of civil society across the country. One-third of Americans have never interacted with their current neighbors, according to a 2015 City Observatory study. General sociality is on the decline. Churches, little leagues, community centers and backyard potlucks are the heartbeat of community health, and efforts to support and maintain these institutions need to continue.

The fires persist, but updates as of last week report the Pole Creek Fire is at least 65 percent contained, and the Bald Mountain Fire is more than 70 percent contained. We commend the fire crews risking their lives to tamp out the blaze and tirelessly protect residents and their property.

Between firefighters and open doors, Utahns have demonstrated it doesn’t take a bureaucratic organization to be the gift others need in times of crisis.