Fifty-foot flames leapt across 5,421-plus acres within a quarter mile of homes. The tiny town of Portage, Utah, population 267, was held hostage as the fire raged for four days.
The Town Hall and city park became command central for volunteer and professional fire fighters from nearby towns, Box Elder County and as far away as Arizona. The comfortable routine of up-with-the-cows, and off to work on the farm or nearby towns, then quiet suppers with family and neighbors, was superseded by the noise of heavy equipment and the sounds of breakfast and dinner prepared for 200 firefighters. It created a heaviness of heart, an uncertainty that was painful for both residents and the individuals who had come to protect them.
My husband and I made the hour and a half drive to what I affectionately call “our Sleepy Hollow town,” to find out if the family reunion we had planned in the park could still be held; if the fire was contained and the firemen reassigned to other fires.
From the freeway, Portage is a cluster of beautiful tall trees nestled in a patchwork of farmland and barren terrain. Once inside the town, the homes and property are rich for the imagination to create one’s own stories of the hearty and practical townspeople who inhabit the township.
After speaking with members of the fire command center, we received approval to hold our reunion the next day. The firefighters were up and on the mountain by 9 a.m. and didn’t return until 9 p.m. and the fire was nearing full containment. We left our names and contact information in case the situation changed making the park unavailable.
A dozen porta-potties, four hand sanitation stands and several trucks with food and equipment dotted the park. The grass was matted where the trucks and firefighters bedded down for the night. And still, they were giving our reunion the go-ahead to invade what had become their space.
The next day we arrived back in Portage mid-morning to set up for the reunion. No one from our family had lived in the town for at least 35 years, but it still welcomed us whenever we had the hankerin’ for a reunion there. It was almost eerie to be in the quiet of the morning knowing the hustle and bustle that had taken place just a few hours prior to our arrival.
Within a few minutes another, another family arrived for their own reunion. There was confusion over whether or not the park was double booked. It took only a few minutes for us to agree that it didn’t matter. The pavilion was large enough for the two families, the park had plenty of space to spare and the intimacy Portage provided was incomparable to other larger parks in metropolitan areas.
Though we occupied opposite ends of the pavilion, we eventually gravitated to the other sides and learned about both our families’ ancestries, our connections to specific individuals, and even that one of the older members of the other family had dated the matriarch of our family who had passed on. We shared tablecloths and game prizes. Children from both families rolled in inflatable hamster balls and played soccer together. When we said our good byes to our own family members, it was very natural to move to the other side of the pavilion to say good-bye to our “new” ones.
The day wouldn’t have been complete without stopping at the check-in trailer to express our gratitude one more time to the firefighters who had preserved Rough Canyon as well as our heritage and the tiny hamlet of Portage; the professionals who had shared their space with not one, but two family reunions.
I hold a tender spot in my heart for firefighters. My grandfather and an uncle were firefighters. I will always be in awe of their tenacity, skill, courage and good humor.
Recently I saw a T-shirt that read “Birthplace: Earth, Race: Human, Politics: Freedom, Religion: Love.” Thinking back on the reunion I realized that three groups of people were able to live the principles on that T-shirt; three diverse groups — each with their own agendas — had compromised and shared a minuscule spot on the planet.
Their diplomacy reaped incredible, beautiful insights and benefits. How I wish others could experience its beauty for themselves. The planet truly is ours to share.
Jan Hopkins, Farmington, is a semi-retired freelance journalist (for The Salt Lake Tribune at one time). She has served as a reading tutor in inner-city schools, a mentor at the Utah State Prison, a founding board member of a refugee services coalition in Michigan and a volunteer with the Detroit Interfaith Leadership Council.