Firewood distributed to help Native families

The Warming Hogans program is now distributing free wood to elderly and Native people in need throughout San Juan County.

The program, which is a part of Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), had its first distribution day on October 6. Hundreds of Navajos from San Juan County gathered loads of firewood to help get them through the winter.

Pete Sands founded the program last year and says the growth to this year has been amazing to see.

“I never thought it would be like this,” said Sands. “Me chopping wood by myself in the forest last year, it just speaks volumes.”

Sands came up with the name “Warming Hogans” after delivering a load of wood to a family in Dennehotso. The family told him, “You’re meant to warm hogans.”

Now the program is warming hundreds of homes in the Navajo Nation after three million pounds of wood was collected and brought to San Juan County for elderly and Utah Navajo community members.

In addition to economic, health, and other challenges posed by COVID-19, Navajo Nation residents who use wood to heat their homes are facing more challenges.

Curfews and social distancing has made wood collection more difficult this year, but the Warming Hogans program is stepping up to help.

Aneth residents Andrew and Irene Miller were able to load a trailer of wood at the October 6 pick-up event.

The Millers say the program is a great help, as getting permits and gathering wood can be hard work and even a bit expensive.

While October 6 was the first day of distribution, the program will be distributing free wood every Tuesday in Blanding between 10 a.m. and noon and from 2 to 5 p.m.

Those with trucks and trailers can pick up the free wood themselves from designated piles.

Those who go to pick up the wood are encouraged to be patient, bring help if they can, wear masks, and social distance.

The loading site is on the north end of Blanding, off Highway 191 at the Meadow Lane turnoff, located near the blue storage units. Trucks are to line up in an orderly fashion and follow signs and directions from volunteers on site.

The wood came from several sources, including people who were clearing their land in the Salt Lake City area. However, a large majority is from a September 9 windstorm in northern Utah.

Sands says before they started gathering firewood from up north, they consulted with spiritual practitioners at UNHS who gave the okay.

Sands explains there are some traditional rules when it comes to gathering firewood.

“The rule is that if it’s struck by lightning or thunder you can’t gather it, but the wind is a different story. So we got the approval with the go-ahead and we still took precautions. So people will know that we followed the traditional beliefs, we had it blessed in Salt Lake [City] before we left and we had it blessed here when we got here.”

The UNHS nursing department and volunteers are also providing home deliveries to those who can’t get the wood themselves.

Those who have questions or who need wood delivered can reach out to UNHS and Sands.

The idea for collecting the wood came from Diné sisters Samantha and Donna Eldridge, who live in northern Utah.

“We thought, ‘How could we use that wood? We can take it back and use as firewood for our native elders,’” Samantha Eldredge said according to a press release from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The sisters reached out to contacts they have with the Utah Urban Indian Center to set up a staging area in Salt Lake City. They also coordinated locally with Sands. He says the sisters were responsible for at least ten of the 75 semi loads brought to Blanding.

Volunteer response grew quickly and became massive. The project became so large, organizers also reached out for help from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who used more than 40 church sites as additional staging areas.

Elder Todd Larkin, Area authority for the church, has a primary assignment related to Native American relations for the church in the southwestern United States.

He reports the church and other organizations helped organize around 10,000 volunteers to find, cut, and load 80 semi-truck loads of wood to distribute to Utah Navajos as well as Ute, Goshute, and Shoshone tribes.

Seventy-five semi loads, driven by volunteers from the Utah Trucking Association, made their way to Blanding where they are being cured ahead of use this winter. Five more semi loads are coming this week.

Elder Larkin is impressed by San Juan County residents who provided hours of labor, equipment, and food for truck drivers who unloaded the needed firewood.

“I know very well how great the need is, particularly right now,” said Larkin. “We hadn’t even finished unloading the wood before people started to line up in their cars to pick up firewood.”

Alon Pugh, the church stake president in the Blanding area, said it was a tragedy to see the damage done in northern Utah by the wind storms.

“But they were able to take that tragedy and turn it into a miracle of love, a feeling of warmth that is not just in the wood that will burn but in the hearts that will swell with love and appreciation for the people that have given the gift,” said Pugh. “[For those] receiving, the gift [will] give for a long time.”

Sands says he spread word out to the universe and Utah shouted back with all the help.

“We appreciate all the help we’re getting from Salt Lake [City] down to Blanding to everywhere. All the helping hands that touched this wood made it happen.

“So many people come together and they’ll probably never meet each other in their lifetime but they care about each other. That’s what matters now, especially in the times we’re in.”

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