SALEM — Amber Haskell has four brothers-in-law in her neighborhood, so she always assumed her family could stay with them if ever something happened to her house.
Then lightning sparked a pair of wildfires near their community of Elk Ridge, torching more than 175 square miles as of Thursday and forcing an estimated 6,000 people from their homes. Haskell, her husband and three children have moved into the Salem house of a family she previously had only said 'hi' to from time to time.
"We really didn't know them that well," Haskell said. "They've been so wonderful."
The Haskells aren't alone. Many who are displaced in Utah County are receiving support — whether it's housing, meals, or other assistance — from those just outside the evacuation zone.
The effort, in large part coordinated by congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been so overwhelming that an underutilized Red Cross evacuation center closed earlier this week.
"Most disasters, you go other places. Everybody goes to Red Cross shelters. But here, you go to family or a friend," said Jan Newman, Elk Ridge Stake president for the church. "In this situation, everybody was very quickly able to relocate with someone they knew, or someone that was offering their home."
A small group of evacuees also were staying in hotel rooms covered by their insurance policies, he noted, and the Red Cross has provided meals and vouchers for Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A, plus other resources for those ordered to evacuate a week ago.
"We just remain available for the support they need," said Utah-Nevada Red Cross spokesman Rich Woodruff. His organization still is able to help evacuees who may need shelter in coming days, he said.
When the Haskells asked if they could park their RV on a dead-end Salem street near their acquaintances, the family instead offered up a basement with bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchenette.
"We said, 'Move in. Don’t stay in the trailer. That’s no fun," said Brenda Betteridge. "We just wanted them to be comfortable."
Even though their daughters were friends, their parents hardly knew each other a week ago. At 13 years old, Alexa Betteridge had first thought to ask in a text message how she could help the Haskells.
The families this week got to know each other over a dinner of beef fajitas cooked by Haskell — a gesture Betteridge appreciated because she doesn't cook much. The host also is recovering from ankle surgery and is grateful for the company.
“They’re taking care of me as much as I’m providing a house for them," Betteridge said. Her miniature schnauzer Maggie has also enjoyed the new guests, sneaking downstairs to spend time with them.
"I’ve heard firefighters say they’ve never seen any community come together like this and provide for evacuees," Betteridge added. "All I can say is I’m really glad I live where I do."
Several others have also offered to house the Haskells, Amber Haskell added.
"What is surprising is how much people think of you: the texts, the offers, people checking in,'" she said. "To let other people serve us has been challenging, but also heartwarming and touching."
Aside from shelter, other homegrown help is available for evacuees.
A chapel in Salem has become a community center, where toys and children's movies are available to kids while their parents catch up and commiserate. Newman and others also are coordinating homecooked meals for clients evacuated from an assisted living facility in Elk Ridge.
He emphasized that even though his and nearby stakes have organized volunteer efforts, the assistance is open to people of other faiths and to those who aren't religious.
"They're all our friends. And they're part of our community," he said.
Ranchers on Thursday also expressed gratitude for help from their own community in rounding up cattle that have spent the summer grazing in Diamond Fork, where the Pole Creek Fire now is burning and threatening their herds.
"It's a great bunch of people who live around here," said cattleman Larry Carson.
Early Thursday, authorities reopened U.S. 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon, saying they expect a cold front to shift winds and help them fight the lightning-sparked wildfires that together have consumed more 175 square miles.10 comments on this story
The Bald Mountain Fire threatening the Haskell's home had grown to 17,000 acres as of Thursday morning, and containment held steady at 12 percent, according to a news release from agencies fighting the blaze. The flames overlap in some places with the Pole Creek Fire, which has charred 95,700 acres and was 32 percent contained. The cost of fighting the flames had topped $6 million as of Wednesday, fire managers said.
Authorities also reopened U.S. 89 Thursday, lifting evacuations for roughly 50 houses in the area, said Utah County Sheriff's spokesman Spencer Cannon. A cold front has shifted winds to the northwest and will likely blow the northwest corner of the fire back on itself, away from Elk Ridge and the city of Woodland Hills, which remained under evacuation.
Contributing: Caitlin Burchill