Operation Firewood Rescue: How tragedy on the Wasatch Front became a blessing for the Navajo Nation

Just over two weeks ago, President Alon Pugh, president of the Blanding Utah Stake, was working with one of his Physical Therapy patients in Montezuma Creek on the Navajo Nation reservation when they saw a video clip of massive trees downed in the Salt Lake Valley following a storm with hurricane wind speeds. 

Looking at the large fallen trees, President Pugh’s patient said, “It’s too bad that all that wood can’t come to the reservation.” 

This week, approximately 3 million pounds or around 80 semi truck loads worth of wood from fallen trees in Northern Utah was delivered to a large site in Blanding, Utah, just outside the Navajo Nation. 

“It was fun to go back and be able to say, ‘How much do you want?’” President Pugh said of his excitement to tell his patient. “This donation is going to be a huge blessing for the people who live on the reservation.”

Samantha Eldridge, who worked with Utah Navajo Health System to initiate the firewood gathering project, streams a live view of the collected wood debris collected by volunteers on social media on Saturday, September 19, 2020, at the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake's parking lot. According to Eldridge and other leaders of the wood gathering project, firewood is a lifeline for the Navajo Nation community in Utah.
Samantha Eldridge, who worked with Utah Navajo Health System to initiate the firewood gathering project, streams a live view of the collected wood debris collected by volunteers on social media on Saturday, September 19, 2020, at the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake’s parking lot. According to Eldridge and other leaders of the wood gathering project, firewood is a lifeline for the Navajo Nation community in Utah. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

A nation in need

The Navajo Nation, as well as the Shoshone and Goshute nations, are the beneficiaries of what is being called the largest wood donation in the U.S. following the massive wind storm that swept through the Wasatch Front on Sept. 8.

Through the work and coordination of several partnering entities, the remnants of a disaster on the Wasatch Front have become a great blessing to the Navajo Nation, most of whom are largely dependent on burning wood to heat their homes throughout the winter.

“I’ve been extremely concerned about the Navajo Nation,” said Elder Todd Larkin, and Area Seventy who oversees the stakes and areas in and around the reservation in southern Utah and the four corners. “They heat their homes primarily with wood stoves and cook with wood stoves. They usually spend their spring and summer collecting wood for that purpose, but this year they haven’t been able to do that.“

The Navajo Nation has been among the hardest hit populations by COVID-19 in the U.S. With roughly 173,000 people on the reservation, Elder Larkin said roughly 1 in 14 people, or around 11,000 people total, have tested positive for the coronavirus. “They’ve been severely impacted and in order to combat that, their leadership have imposed nightly curfews as well as curfews for the weekends,” he said. With curfew restrictions that limit their ability to go out and collect wood like they normally do, plans and preparations for the winter have been extremely difficult this year.

In addition to the curfew restrictions, many people have been laid off from their jobs and businesses have shut down amid the pandemic, explained President Romero Brown, president of the Chinle Arizona Stake and member of the Navajo Nation. The pandemic has affected life on the reservation in many ways and the past six months have been a struggle for many people.

Life on the reservation is not naturally isolating. Although people often live in remote areas spread out from one another, they are dependent on gathering with family and others for work and getting supplies regularly. There are also limited places for people to isolate when they test positive for the virus because, oftentimes, extended families live together, and there are very few hotels or alternative living spaces for people to go and quarantine, explained Elder Larkin. 

As a result of the many ways the pandemic has affected life on the reservation, donations of food and water have been essential blessings throughout the last six months, President Brown said. Now leading into the winter months, wood is a resources they desperately need but have had no way to acquire.

Pete Sands, from Utah Navajo Health System and Cynthie Whitehorse, his assistant, drop off donated firewood for Ana Vigil, a Navajo tribe member who lives in Montezuma Creek, Utah, on Saturday, September 26, 2020.
Pete Sands, from Utah Navajo Health System and Cynthie Whitehorse, his assistant, drop off donated firewood for Ana Vigil, a Navajo tribe member who lives in Montezuma Creek, Utah, on Saturday, September 26, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

“We work hard and we don’t expect much,” President Brown said. “But we really appreciate all those who are donating. Our people really appreciate it because it’s really going to help.”

Speaking specifically of the Operation Firewood Rescue donation, President Brown said, “Our people use a lot of wood and coal, they need wood, so when Elder Larkin mentioned if we could use that, I said, ’You bet we can! The people would really appreciate that.”

Recovering through service

After two sisters, Donna and Samantha Eldridge, who have family living on the Navajo reservation, put in a request with the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City to act as a drop off location for people to bring wood from their downed trees as donations for the reservation, things expanded quickly. Local and area leaders of the Church as well as government and private entities soon became involved in the efforts to repurpose the fallen trees from across the Wasatch Front as firewood for the reservations. 

A lift trick moves wood for Operation Firewood Rescue, which took fallen trees from the Wasatch front to donate as firewood for the Navajo Nation in September 2020.
A lift trick moves wood for Operation Firewood Rescue, which took fallen trees from the Wasatch front to donate as firewood for the Navajo Nation in September 2020. Credit: Operation Firewood Rescue committee

Steve Studdert was called by Elder Larkin to act as the chairman for the project, which they designated as Operation Firewood Rescue. Studdert and the project’s coordinating leader, Doug Thayne, oversaw the logistics and organization of cleanup efforts and drop off locations for some 44 stakes along the Wasatch Front who participated in pulling out trees and cutting wood to send to the reservations. They also partnered with Utah government entities, Utah Navajo Health System, the Utah Trucking Association, Associated General Contractors and the Rotary Clubs of Utah to accomplish the work of cutting and gathering firewood. Stake presidents involved in the project worked with their respective community partners like city offices and municipal workers to help collect trees from golf courses, public parks and other land areas where cleanup was needed. 

The scale of the project and the number of people and organizations involved has been amazing, Studdert said. Some 10,000 volunteers are estimated to have participated in the project’s efforts.

Map of the Wasatch Front and the reservations where donations for Operation Firewood Rescue went in September 2020.
Map of the Wasatch Front and the reservations where donations for Operation Firewood Rescue went in September 2020. Credit: Mary Archbold, Deseret News

“We had this enormous storm with an enormous amount of wood that was going to go to waste at the same time that the Navajo Nation was acutely in need, and thousands of people rallied together. They’ve done all the preparation of the wood, which has been incredible and extraordinary,” he said. “It’s been amazing to see the hand of the Lord in this and to see these complex logistical pieces work and come together.”

When he first was called by Elder Larkin, Studdert said the magnitude of the project seemed overwhelming and he worried they wouldn’t be able to gather enough, but the response has been the opposite. “People have been thanking us for this opportunity to serve those on the reservation,” he said. The whole project, culminating with the more than 80 truckloads of wood, was organized, executed and completed in matter of about 10 days, Studdert said.

“I have watched miracle after miracle as this thing has come together. Wards and stakes as well as trucking companies have called, wanting to participate,” he said.“My gratitude is enormous for what they have accomplished in short order.” 

Blessings from serving

Having lived in New Mexico near the reservation for a time, President Kory E. Coleman, president of the Bountiful Utah North Canyon Stake, said he feels a deep love for and connection with the Navajo people. Keenly aware of the challenges of life on the reservation and how they would be complicated by COVID-19, President Coleman said being able to use his background in trucking and landfill management to help the community he loves was a small personal blessing. 

A Latter-day Saint volunteer in Kaysville, Utah, cuts a fallen tree into multiple pieces on Thursday, September 24, 2020. A windstorm with hurricane-speed winds took place in on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, The severe windstorm damaged homes, triggered power outages for tens of thousands of people and caused at least one death.
A Latter-day Saint volunteer in Kaysville, Utah, cuts a fallen tree into multiple pieces on Thursday, September 24, 2020. A windstorm with hurricane-speed winds took place in on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, The severe windstorm damaged homes, triggered power outages for tens of thousands of people and caused at least one death. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

“I think about how we went from the hope for a few truckloads to sending 80 truckloads and it’s amazing,” he said. “I knew Heavenly Father wanted something more to happen than just a couple of truckloads making it to these good people. The way people have come together, whether members of the Church or not, and the friendships that were created and connections made, that to me is what the gospel is all about. People coming together to love help and serve one another. Great things come about because of that. I see the Lord’s hand in that.”

Elder Bronson Wright, a member of the Bountiful Utah Central Stake, who is currently doing home MTC, also had the opportunity to utilize his skills in a unique way to help serve others before he leaves to serve in the Minnesota Minneapolis Mission. 

“My dad has owned an excavation company for years, so I have grown up around equipment like that and had opportunities to learn the business and run the equipment,” he said. 

When his dad volunteered to help with the tree removal and firewood efforts by donating his time and equipment, Elder Wright figured he may as well contribute what he can as well. So, he spent two of his preparation days serving alongside his dad, operating heavy machinery to help pull out trees haul away wood to be donated. 

Elder Bronson Wright stands on a truck he used to help move wood as part of Operation Firewood Rescue, which took fallen trees from the Wasatch front to donate as firewood for the Navajo Nation in September 2020.
Elder Bronson Wright stands on a truck he used to help move wood as part of Operation Firewood Rescue, which took fallen trees from the Wasatch front to donate as firewood for the Navajo Nation in September 2020. Credit: Paul Summers

“We talk about COVID-19 and how it has changed people’s lives in so many ways, but being at the home MTC has also given us the opportunity to utilize our talents in new ways. I just wanted to serve others and, as a whole, the experience was great as a testimony builder. Seeing how everyone had a desire to help was a great spiritual experience.” 

Accomplishing what is needed

Speaking to the Church News by phone while standing near the giant pile of wood now located in Blanding, Elder Larkin said that, thanks to the wonderful Latter-day Saints and others in the Salt Lake area “who jumped at a moment’s notice to go out and find and cut up trees,” the Navajo Nation now has likely enough wood to get through this winter and maybe even a good part of next. “This is a lot of wood,” he said. 

“A tragedy for people in Northern Utah turned into the solution for an impending disaster on the Navajo Nation” thanks to the combined efforts of everyone involved, Elder Larkin continued. 

From beginning to end, everyone contributed what they could. Trucking companies donated their trucks to haul the wood; drivers donated their time to haul it; company owners donated the fuel for the trucks; organizations donated land or locations for collection of the wood and thousands of people donated their time to the heavy work of removing trees and cutting wood.

Samantha and Donna Eldridge (left), who have family members in Utah that live on Navajo Nation, speak to a fellow volunteer as wood donations are picked up for shipment to Blanding, Utah, on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. With the news of a severe windstorm in northern Utah and cleanup efforts making local headlines, Navajo Nation community leaders and residents, including the Eldridge sisters, reached out to state government asking if the wood could be repurposed to help their communities.
Samantha and Donna Eldridge (left), who have family members in Utah that live on Navajo Nation, speak to a fellow volunteer as wood donations are picked up for shipment to Blanding, Utah, on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. With the news of a severe windstorm in northern Utah and cleanup efforts making local headlines, Navajo Nation community leaders and residents, including the Eldridge sisters, reached out to state government asking if the wood could be repurposed to help their communities. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

And on the receiving end, the local stake presidents and mission president are working with bishops and missionaris on the reservation as well as coordinating with the Navajo Nation chapter presidents to organize efforts to get the wood to those in need. 

“The Church has about a 160-year relationship with Navajo Nation. We have a very positive relationship and I think we can accomplish whatever needs to happen,” Elder Larkin said.