Wendy Taylor has lived in the Valley her whole life. She met her husband here and has raised her family here. It has always been her home. She has experienced earthquakes, fierce winds, cold snaps, and forest fires. She knows firsthand how Alaskan nature can give and take in a matter of seconds.
Like most Alaskans, Wendy anxiously watched the recent fires around her grow. Her friends were in the path of the McKinley fire when it first started. A quick and concentrated response from firefighters calmed some initial fears. But as the winds kicked up Wendy, and everyone around her, realized that the situation had become very serious.
Around noon on Monday, August, 19, Wendy learned that Camp LaDaSa in Willow was going to become the headquarters for the McKinley Fire. Firefighters would coordinate resources to battle the flames while camping on-site. She knew the camp hosts and called them to offer her support and assistance. “Sister Sue” Somsen said everything was fine and that she did not see any immediate needs, but she would call if anything changed.
About 5 pm that same day, Wendy got a follow-up call from Sister Sue asking if she could generate a dinner for about 120 firefighters that evening and coordinate three meals a day for the next three days. Wendy said sure (while secretly wondering what she was getting into) and went to work.
How did she accomplish such an overwhelming task on short notice? Wendy currently serves as the local congregational leader in Willow of the largest women’s organization in the world: The Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This organization was founded in 1842 and today includes over 6 million women in over 188 countries. The Relief Society is women-led and women-organized, and it was about to flex its muscles.
Through a network of other Relief Society sisters in the area, they were able to deliver a hot dinner that same night, and meals for the next few days. But they delivered more than food. They provided a sense of home and love amid chaos, fatigue, smoke, and flames.
Have you ever had one of those days where you come home spent, exhausted, and then enter the doors to see a miracle, as if someone had read your mind? These firefighters were not looking forward to another “MRE.” Imagine their relief when they arrived at a camp equipped with bathrooms, showers, warm food and tents.
By the time the food trucks arrived and took over regular meal prep for the camp, the Relief Society sisters had been feeding 200 crew members. As the fire grew, so did the camp. LaDaSa supported over 500 responders, who ate, slept, and cleaned up each day, then got ready to do it all over again. These folks put in long days battling the blaze when the outcome was far from certain and the winds and the heat beat upon them.
I had a chance to speak to some of these wonderful firefighters from all over the US. They were happy to be here, visit our state, accept the hospitality of Alaskans and battle these blazes. Each mentioned the community’s kindness and gratitude. They had received food and cold drinks from neighbors and volunteers, and daily passed signs dotting the road giving thanks for their services.
As we joined together to fight these fires and comfort those who lost homes and property, we saw many examples of Christ-like service. Matthew 25:35 and 40 KJV reads, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in…Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I was amazed by the efforts of countless others to support the firefighting effort. As the weeks and months pass and the fire no longer makes the headlines, those who are rebuilding will still need our help. If we open our eyes and our hearts, we will find the hungry, thirsty, sick, and afflicted in our communities. We can continue to join together to relieve their burdens and thank the Lord for letting us play a part.
If you want to help, the Mat-Su COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster) posts needs and opportunities on their Facebook page. More opportunities are online at JustServe.org.
John Boston is a local physician, member of the Mat-Su Regional Hospital Board of Trustees, Colonel in the Alaska Air National Guard, father, husband, grandfather, and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.