LDS young men's camp in Arizona evacuates after spotting large fire

By Scott Brown

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, June 27 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

Photo of San Juan file from U.S. Route 60. Camps and communities mostly populated with summer homes are under mandatory evacuation orders due to a fire in northeastern Arizona's White Mountains.

Scott Brown

The Gilbert Williams Field Stake Young Men’s encampment near Greer, Arizona, was evacuated Thursday, two days before its scheduled end. It was concluded after lunch when a leader saw smoke on the horizon and was the first to report the fire via 911.

The encampment — named “Helaman’s Camp” after the Book of Mormon hero — consisted of over 200 young men and nearly 100 volunteer leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Leader Mason Lundell said firefighters were at the camp within 25 minutes of his call and issued a pre-evacuation notice. If campers had subsequently received a full evacuation notice they would have to leave behind everything and depart immediately.

The San Juan fire is believed to have started on San Juan Flats on the Fort Apache Reservation, about 4.3 miles from Helaman’s Camp, according to one camp leader, Rollin Adams, who was able to calculate the coordinates on his GPS. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

Chet Jenkins, another leader at the encampment, said the pre-evacuation notice resulted in “organized chaos.” Many of the older young men, ages 14-18, were participating in high-adventure activities as Varsity Teams and Venture Crews, which meant the 12- and 13-year-old Scouts who were working on merit badges were the first to begin preparations to evacuate.

Two of those Scouts, Truman Idso and Branson Heywood, saw the smoke and weren't sure what to think at first.

Truman said that when he first saw the smoke, he didn’t think it was a big deal: “I never thought it was possible something like this would happen to our camp. But within three or four minutes we were told it was a forest fire and we had to begin packing up camp as a precaution.”

Branson, who just turned 12, said, “I remember another Scout running across a field yelling at us to turn around and look up. When I did, I thought I was looking at a dust storm. Then I realized it was smoke from a forest fire. It looked very close.”

According to Truman, for 20 minutes the Scouts packed up all the gear in an organized fashion — folding up tents and rolling up sleeping bags — but soon they were told stake leaders had decided to do a full evacuation as a precaution. “After that, we just began throwing tents and sleeping bags and poles into trucks and trailers.”

All of the Scouts worked hard and fast. One Scout, Josh Zoller, was wearing a splint on his finger because of a wood-carving accident. Undeterred, he carried items and packed up his camp as hastily as the other Scouts.

“By the end of the evacuation, the Scouts were covered in dirt and mud, but the camp was packed up. The Scouts did an amazing job,” said Josh’s father, Rob Zoller, who was volunteering his time at the encampment.

Perhaps most telling, another leader said he remembered seeing a big bag of candy on the ground as they packed. “Usually that would cause any Scout to lose focus on a task and take a detour to the candy. However, this time it remained on the ground, untouched and unnoticed.”

The older youth were also alerted that there was a fire and to prepare to evacuate. One of those young men, Kaden Heywood, Branson's older brother, said he did not think it was serious at first.

“We were doing canoeing at a nearby lake and couldn’t see any smoke," Kaden said. "But as we returned to camp, we could see a lot of smoke on the horizon. We knew it was serious. We had about 20 minutes to finish packing with the Scouts before we left.”

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