It looked like Sarah and Sterling Peterson’s wedding was off.
Just two days before the big event, the city of Woodland Hills was ordered to evacuate due to a looming 20,000-acre wildfire at the edge of town. The Woodland Hills Community Center, which the couple had booked for the celebration, was behind a barricade. Sterling’s family fled his childhood home, leaving behind the couple’s carefully chosen wedding decorations and food for 300 guests.
Relatives had booked flights and some already had begun to arrive in advance of the Saturday wedding.
“I was pretty stressed out and worried it wouldn’t come together,” Sarah said. “I didn’t want to suddenly cancel because we did have family and friends flying in.”
What could have been a nuptial nightmare turned into a community celebration when friends, volunteers and random strangers cobbled together a wedding for the Petersons in a single day.
“It ended up being THE best day of my life,” Sterling said.
After Woodland Hills evacuated, Sarah searched for a church, a community center — any place that could host 300 people with one day’s notice and a budget already spent on a wedding that couldn’t happen. The planned luncheon of roast chicken was abandoned in Woodland Hills. Sarah and Sterling wondered, could they manage to feed everyone with a hodgepodge of dishes from Costco?
Then they heard from a relative who was a horse trainer at the Summerhill Equestrian Centre in Saratoga Springs, which has an attached event center. With less than 24 hours to the wedding, Summerhill agreed to donate the venue to the couple. The Petersons had never seen the place, but at last they had an address to give to guests — or, at least the ones they could track down after so many friends and neighbors had evacuated. The fires in Utah County had ballooned to almost 90,000 acres by Saturday, and 6,000 people had been forced to leave Woodland Hills and surrounding towns.
It looked like the disastrous week might still cast a pall over the whole wedding, even with a location nailed down.
“I was really sad that things weren’t going the way I originally anticipated … but obviously, this is directly affecting family, my family,” Sarah said. “It was very scary to have the possibility that they could lose their home. It made me feel like a lot of things are out of my control.”
But from the ashes, a wedding started to take shape. The owner of Oregano Italian Kitchen in Provo learned of the Petersons’ wedding and volunteered to cater. Utah DIY Wedding in Payson and Modern Display in Salt Lake City donated decorations and flowers.
While the Petersons and their family went to the Jordan River Temple for a private ceremony, friends fanned out to gather donations from around Utah County: plastic cutlery, tulle to decorate the chair backs, frames for pictures of the couple, a light-up sign that spelled the word “love.” Strangers who donated received last-minute wedding invitations.
When Sarah and Sterling arrived at Summerhill for the first time and saw fairy lights glittering across the ceiling, their eyes welled up.
“I had to hide my face a bit because I got teary-eyed thinking about all the help that we got,” Sterling said.
“It ended up turning out so much better than we’d [planned],” Sarah agreed.
But, Sterling said, “The story is more about the community than it is about us.
“At the end of the day we wanted to give a big thank you not just to the people who donated but also to the firefighters who put their lives on the line to make sure the town stays safe.”