Compassion soothes heartache of fire

Members rally around those whose homes were destroyed by flames


The homes of Auburn 2nd Ward, Auburn California Stake, members Dan and Sherry Jones, Steve and Susie Hardman, Terry and Beverly Johnson, and Tony and Olea Woolf were among 63 destroyed here in a raging, wind-driven fire on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 31. The fire traveled two miles in 10 minutes.

The home of the Hardmans, which they share with their son Scott, his wife, Amanda, and their baby son, Simon, burned to the ground.

Scott said, "We got home from Church, and Amanda went upstairs to put Simon down for a nap. Suddenly it got really dark, the way it does when a cloud covers the sun, but there was an orange glow behind it. My parents got home a couple of minutes later and said, 'There is a fire going out there.' Then we saw a plane going over dropping retardant. We grabbed my laptop, our wedding scrapbook and my missionary letters just as the sheriff came to tell us to get out."

On their way home from Church, the Joneses saw the fire at what they thought was a safe distance from their home.

"It was about a half mile away and several fire engines were on-site," Brother Jones said. "We got home and changed our clothes. Then Sherry stepped outside and saw a wall of fire coming over the hill. From that point, we had about three minutes to escape. The smoke was thick like it was night; it was getting very hot and we could not breathe. We left with next to nothing. Sherry had her scriptures and we had the clothes on our backs."

Just a few minutes later, their house was fully engulfed in flames.

Bishop Mike Trentman said, "We were returning from a mini-family reunion in Utah. … We were in the middle of Nevada when the first call came from my son. He said, 'Dad, the sky is full of smoke, and we've been told to leave our house.' "

Relief Society president Sherry Jones and her husband, who had just left their own property burning, had come to the Trentman's house to tell the family to leave. A call from the sheriff's department came about the same time.

A long list of Church members and leaders began gathering at a nearby commercial property owned by ward members Robert and Penni Frew. Auburn California Stake President Rod Brower was among them. They quickly assessed that all of the families in the burning neighborhoods had been accounted for except one, 92-year-old Tony Woolf and his wife, Olea.

President Brower asked Dr. Bart Bradshaw to head over to Rock Creek School, which had been set up as an evacuation center, to see if he could find Brother and Sister Woolf there.

Brother Woolf reported, "We had just come home from Church. I threw my coat over a chair and glanced out the window to see the corner of the house was on fire. I grabbed Olea and my meds and hurried out the door and drove out of the subdivision. We went to our daughter's home about 20 miles away before remembering she was away on a trip. Then I became a bit confused, not knowing what to do next. We finally headed back to Auburn and went to the Rock Creek School evacuation center where Brother Bradshaw found us."

Brother Terry Johnson told about his escape. He was alone; his wife Beverly was trapped in a traffic jam caused by the fire.

"Getting out of the fire, I had only 10 minutes from the time I saw the column of smoke," he said. "There is only one entrance to this subdivision. Smoke was heavy. You could hardly see. There were embers in my face and people running between the cars. The cell phone was invaluable; it allowed me to find Bev."

Bishop Trentman noted, "It was a pretty helpless feeling being on the road in the midst of all this. All I could do was keep tabs. President Brower called, telling me that over 200 people had already called offering food, bedding and shelter. … By the time I arrived back, each of the families were placed and I found out our house was still intact."

President Brower next began organizing clean-up efforts. He reported, "We have four dump trucks, backhoes, bulldozers and plenty of people ready to start cleaning up. Despite our long experience with the Church, this is far beyond our expectations. These families all have insurance. If they did not, we could still rebuild for them if we had to. Members from all over the stake and region were chomping at the bit to get in and help. There has been an overwhelming outpouring of love and support.

"We are very grateful to all who have offered their services and extended their condolences. Many stakes, including Auburn Washington Stake, have contacted us to offer assistance and support."

Dan Jones said, "Even by Tuesday, everything was still hot. The bottom of Sherry's shoes melted while we were digging around in the ashes. Maybe we have lost our lifetime of possessions, but we have each other and our eternal marriage. The fire has not taken our faith. I'm not blaming anyone. I'm thankful we are alive. But losing a house like this is like losing a loved one. There is a grieving process."

Members Kevin and Cathy Johnston were among 22 LDS families evacuated, but they did not lose their home. The fire stopped at an irrigation ditch behind their house. However, their home is too damaged to live in for the time being.

Tuesday evening, Sister Johnson was walking through the area, surveying the disaster when she commented, "I feel blessed and guilty at the same time. My heart goes out to those who lost their homes. Like others, we had literally a couple of minutes to get out. I grabbed photo albums and our dogs."

Sister Johnston said, "We called our families and friends to ask for their prayers. Our daughter Ashley's wedding at the Sacramento temple is in less than two weeks. Everything for the wedding, including the bride's gown, bridesmaids' dresses, the groom's suit, was in the house. There is smoke damage, but it is repairable. We are feeling very grateful."

Bishop Trentman observed, "Life can turn on a dime. Be prepared. Take pictures of what is in your homes, keep them safe off-site, in a safety deposit box or using the remote computer programs."

He added, "These people are understandably devastated at their loss. But because they are all alive, and they have all this support and love, they will be just fine. The love of family, the Lord and one another is what counts."

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