Colorado wildfire: missionaries and Church members accounted for, but some lost everything

Nearly 500 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were among the estimated 35,000 people who had to evacuate their homes when a fast-moving wildfire tore through Boulder County, Colorado, on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Colorado authorities say the 6,200-acre fire destroyed 991 buildings, and as of Saturday evening, three people were still missing as 10 inches of snow fell on the charred landscape.

All missionaries and Church members were accounted for and safe, and all Church buildings were intact, although at least 11 homes belonging to members were destroyed. Other families were still awaiting confirmation on their homes, according to Church authorities in the area, with nearly 500 Latter-day Saints among those forced to evacuate.

Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s North America Central Area, spoke to the Church News on behalf of the area presidency.

“We continue to assess this tragic and fluid situation. Our hearts are tender right now thinking about those whose lives have been impacted. We are offering our prayers for them and stand ready to assist as we learn more,” Elder Nielsen said. “We are so grateful for the kind response from local leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints along with first responders, other friends, neighbors and local agencies in the affected area. They have reached out to show Christlike love in an unprecedented way.”

Said President Quinn P. Remund of the Boulder Colorado Stake: “Our hearts are heavy knowing that some members of the stake lost their homes along with so many of our neighbors in the community.  We’re deeply grateful that all of our members are safe and well.  Throughout this tragic event, members remained positive and resolute, while seeking to help others around them even when they’ve been directly impacted themselves.”

Running to safety

15-year-old Aubrey Spindle took this photo of the smoke filling the sky in their Boulder County, Colorado neighborhood on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
15-year-old Aubrey Spindle took this photo of the smoke filling the sky in their Boulder County, Colorado neighborhood on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Credit: Aubrey Spindle

The Spindle family, in the Boulder Ward, thought the dark clouds were a storm, but by the time they realized it was smoke, the fire was quickly moving through their neighborhood in the city of Superior. Tom and Shayla Spindle and the four children grabbed shoes and coats, opened the front door and saw smoke and embers. 

So they kicked out a screen window in a back bedroom, jumped a fence and piled into the car. But they couldn’t even see the road through the smoke, and they seemed trapped.

“It was constant prayer, non-stop,” Tom Spindle told the Church News.

They went around to the back of the property and ran — they stumbled through an uneven field and climbed through a barbed wire fence to escape the fast-moving flames, all the while holding on to each other to stay upright during the high winds. Authorities say the wind gusts reached 100 miles per hour.

“We’ve lived in Alabama for 12 years through tornadoes and helped with clean-up; but I’ve never felt wind like this. It was hard to stand up. It was intense,” Tom Spindle said.

Angels in pickup trucks

This is a photo Tom Spindle sent to his family when they were safe. Ash is on his face and he's wearing his wife's jacket, the only thing he could grab in time before they ran out of the house on Dec. 30, 2021.
This is a photo Tom Spindle sent to his family when they were safe. Ash is on his face and he’s wearing his wife’s jacket, the only thing he could grab in time before they ran out of the house on Dec. 30, 2021. Credit: Tom Spindle

The Spindles made it to safety when they reached another road, and two men in pickup trucks opened their doors to let them climb in. Shayla Spindle had lost and found a shoe, Tom Spindle was wearing a coat that wasn’t even his. Their bishop called while they were in the truck to check on them. Ward members were reaching out to each other to see if everyone was safe.

Their guardian angels drove the family to Shayla’s sister’s house about 30 minutes away in Thornton, Colorado, where they have remained as they try to figure out what to do next. They soon found out their home had burned to the ground. Just the concrete foundation is left.

The Spindles had only just fully moved in a couple weeks before, on Dec. 18. Shayla Spindle had moved there first for work with their two younger children, while Tom Spindle stayed in Alabama with their two teenagers until 17-year-old Collin finished high school in December. They have an older son on a mission in the Canada Toronto Mission right now. They are all grateful that Tom’s parents, who were with them for Christmas, had already returned home.

”The fire came so fast, it would have been devastating. There would have been no running for my mother because of her health, so it’s such a blessing,” he said.

Overwhelmed by generosity

The Spindle Family, Tom and Shayla are in the center, surrounded by Bradly, Collin, Aubrey, Camden and Melody.
The Spindle Family, Tom and Shayla are in the center, surrounded by Bradly, Collin, Aubrey, Camden and Melody. Credit: Tom Spindle

Tom Spindle said they are overwhelmed by the generosity of people who quickly rallied to find them toothbrushes, clothing, food and basic necessities. Others brought by toys, knowing that the children just lost all their new Christmas presents and every other possession. Family members started to fundraise for them as well.

“We feel so loved and blessed beyond what we deserve,” said Tom Spindle. “We want people to know how grateful we are, and that it’s OK. These are hard things, but we will be OK. Our faith is fully intact and strengthened; our family is intact and strengthened.”

That same feeling of gratitude was expressed by Elder Frederick K. Balli Jr., an Area Seventy. “It is wonderful to see the concern on the part of the members of the Church and the community. I think everyone is anxious to help, and we are still trying to understand what we might do that might be helpful. If I were to sum up, it would be to acknowledge how concerned others are, and the faith and prayers offered on behalf of everyone in the fire, and just a willingness to help out.”

President Remund said that in the two affected wards of the Boulder stake, ward councils acted quickly and effectively under the direction of their bishops to ensure evacuated members had a safe place to stay — even though 75% of those ward council leaders were evacuees themselves. Though spread out over large distances in homes of friends and family or in hotels, the leaders worked together remotely to minister to ward members and ensure that all were safe and accounted for.

“One bishop noted that immediately after they evacuated, he and some other members gathered in an office building outside of the evacuation zone,” President Remund said. “A few members of his priests quorum were there, uncertain as to what they should do.  The bishop gathered them together, noted that the Aaronic priesthood is primarily responsible for the temporal needs of the Church, and asked them to take out their cell phones start calling members of the ward. 

“They went to work with their bishop checking in one-by-one with as many members as they could to ensure they were safe and well.  We are grateful that our wonderful youth engaged in the emergency response efforts and made a significant difference.”

The stake president added that the two wards have been through a lot over the past year — first the pandemic, then an active-shooter incident in a Boulder grocery last March, in which the tragic loss of 10 lives shook the entire community.

“The members of these wards are now dealing with an unprecedented winter wildfire,” President Remund said. “Through it all, they have responded in a spirit of faith, endurance, and an outward focus of service.”