Not long after a late-summer downpour unleashed a river of mud above homes in the community of Alpine, volunteers showed up to shovel debris and fill sandbags. They came quickly and worked until there was little else they could do. Such a spontaneous marshaling of volunteer labor has become a common scene when disaster strikes a Utah community, and it is a phenomenon as powerful as the forces of nature that cause the problems in the first place.
It has become something of a Utah tradition to leap to the aid of a neighbor in trouble. Volunteers show up before anyone asks them to, as if the option of staying home isn't even part of the equation. Such unprompted selflessness is what creates a cohesive community, and we have seen it in action in many places over many years.
When fire threatened the area near Rockport Reservoir, volunteers showed up to help evacuees. When wildfires have threatened homes in places like Herriman and Saratoga Springs, an army of volunteers numbering in the thousands amassed to help in whatever way it could.
It's not as if these are all people who have lived among each other for a long time. Such disasters often occur in fledgling communities with new developments that reach into untamed areas where the dangers of fires and floods are somewhat greater. When an individual home is threatened, the people who come to help are often strangers, and there are a lot of them. In Alpine, more than a thousand volunteers showed up in a span of a just a few hours.
It's not exactly as if Utah has cornered the market in altruism. Volunteerism flourishes throughout America, but it is distinct and constant in our local culture, and has been for generations. A seminal moment in the continuation of that tradition probably occurred in the spring of 1983, when rains and runoff caused massive flooding along the Wasatch Front. People still talk about the battalion of volunteers who came to save State Street from falling under several feet of water.
Much of the marshaling is the work of church and civic organizations that can muster their membership, but not all of it. In every example, people show up to help others with whom they have no affiliation.
The volunteers don't seek recognition for their work, but they deserve it. They don't do it for any recompense other than perhaps knowing that if they should find themselves similarly threatened by an act of nature, others would show up to help.
It is a kind of unspoken social contract that in its execution has saved lives and property and become a distinguishing characteristic of those communities where people recognize they are part of something bigger than themselves.