Disaster response three months after Waldo Canyon Fire

Members, community unite to clean up and sandbag


No, it's not the Mojave Desert or a scene from ancient Egypt but rather Colorado Springs, Colo., where 150 tons of sand was delivered on Sept. 1, for local volunteers to make into sandbags for victims of the Waldo Canyon Fire that occurred three months ago.

The Waldo Canyon Fire covered more than 18,000 acres and is considered the most destructive fire in Colorado history by the number of homes destroyed. Those 346 homes were mostly located in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on the west side of I-25. Due to the extensive damage to vegetation in that area, the risk of flooding has been vastly increased, said Ken Hughlett, emergency management coordinator for Colorado Springs.

Mormon Helping Hands' volunteers anxiously dig into the multiple piles of sand to fill 10,000 sandbags.
Mormon Helping Hands' volunteers anxiously dig into the multiple piles of sand to fill 10,000 sandbags. Photo: Photo courtesy of Whitney Leaming

In cooperation with "Colorado Springs Together," a non-profit group that was organized by citizens of Colorado Springs after the fire, the Office of Emergency Management volunteered to reach out to their contacts in the community and organize a sandbagging project.

Through a grant from FEMA, the Office of Emergency Management had already acquired 50,000 bags ready to be filled. The owner of Daniel's Sand in Colorado Springs, who lives in the Mountain Shadows area, offered to donate 150 tons of sand. That equals a value of $2,500. He also donated the labor and delivery, which was a total of six dump trucks loaded with sand.

Ten thousand sandbags were filled within a three hour time period.
Ten thousand sandbags were filled within a three hour time period. Photo: Photo Courtesy of Peggy Kinnaird

Mr. Hughlett also reached out to Verizon Wireless located on Garden of the Gods Road. "They are one of our good partners," he said. They donated their parking lot area for the whole project which is located near the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

Mr. Hughlett was also looking for volunteers. He had experience with one previous disaster, the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., that occurred in May 2011. He was the food unit supervisor for the city and remembered the yellow Mormon Helping Hands vests on volunteers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He knew John Leavitt was a member of the Church and also worked for the city of Colorado Springs at the time. "I knew who to call. He's on my speed dial on my phone," Mr. Hughlett said. When he contacted Brother Leavitt, he wanted to fill all 2,500 slots with LDS volunteers but had to say "no" to make room for others in the community to serve.

Overall, 631 volunteers showed up that day for a total of 1,332 hours of time donated. Volunteers came from 19 different entities and organizations such as Verizon Wireless, Oracle, Boy Scout troop 66, Veda Salon & Spa, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Civil Air Patrol, Faith Presbyterian and St. Mary's High School.

"I'm very pleased with the success of this project," said Mr. Hughlett. "It's one of the first opportunities we've had for volunteers to help with the disaster."

Brother Leavitt, director of public affairs for the Church in Colorado Springs, said after the Waldo Canyon Fire came over the top of the mountain, the Church almost immediately began to contact the city and El Paso County about providing some service.

"We were chomping at the bit to serve," he said.

When the invitation came from the Office of Emergency Management, Brother Leavitt emailed seven different stakes to see if they could be involved. There were approximately 400 Church members from Colorado Springs and the southern Denver area that showed up to volunteer at 7 a.m. and in the subsequent two-hour shifts.

"Nobody complained a bit," he said. By 9 a.m. Mr. Hughlett told Brother Leavitt he might want his volunteers to slow down a bit to give everyone else an opportunity to serve. By 10 a.m. the task of filling 10,000 bags was completed by the ensemble of volunteers.

"They jumped in there, did the work and made it happen," Mr. Hughlett said about the Mormon Helping Hands' group. "They did a great job."

By 4:30 p.m. approximately 150 vehicles took advantage of the opportunity to load up on free sandbags. The purpose was for flooding mitigation on their property in the Mountain Shadows area.

Melanie Woodruff, of the Cordera Ward, Colorado Springs Colorado North Stake, showed up at the Verizon building to volunteer with her husband Rusty, and daughters Alexis, 16, and Valerie, 14. "Any time there is an opportunity for us to serve as a family I think that's a good thing.

"We came because we were all impacted by the Waldo Canyon Fire," she said. "It's an opportunity to kind of resolve those feelings of wanting to help."

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