Late September is a busy time for the Salem Hills athletic program.
The Skyhawk girls soccer team is in the midst of a league-title chase, the football team is battling for 4A playoff positioning and the cross country team hosts the annual Nebo Invitational with runners coming from across the state.
Add in the normal concerns of high school (tests, homework, social interactions, etc.) and you can see how it would be pretty stressful.
In 2018, however, everything went to a completely different level due to the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain wildfires.
Salem Hills chemistry teacher, athletic director and girls soccer coach Lee Gillie saw the challenges on multiple levels.
Not only did he see his students and players facing extremely poor air quality and not knowing where the fire would end up, he personally had to evacuate from his home in Elk Ridge.
“I was living with my family in Spanish Fork and as I would drive to work, I would look up on the hill and just see smoke and firefighters,” he said Monday. “It was a constant reminder that this wasn’t where we wanted to be.”
Many of his Skyhawk girls soccer players lived in areas that were evacuated, which created a wide variety of unique issues.
“As humans and as athletes, we are creatures of habit and this completely broke up their normal routine,” Gillie said. “In the first week of evacuations, we had girls who were living in Heber City or in Salt Lake City and thus weren’t able to make it to school or practices. One girl was staying on the sofa at a sibling’s house ,but had to share it with a brother and sister. Families were split up because there wasn’t somewhere that they could all go.”
Another one of the Salem Hills girls soccer players was actually commuting every day to Salem from Sundance, where the family was staying with a grandparent, until arrangements could be made for her to stay in Springville.
Gillie talked about how the need to evacuate quickly meant that many of his players had limited clothing options.
“Girls weren’t able to get all of their soccer clothes out of their house but the other girls came together and they mixed and matched items to make it work,” Gillie said. “You could get in line to go up to the houses and get clothes, but it was based on time. Many of us ended up wearing the same two or three outfits for a week.”
He said that even in such uncertain times, he was amazed at how the girls responded.
“On the Thursday night when they had the evacuations and they were having the meeting at Salem Hills High School, some of the girls came home from the soccer game and went and made fresh cookies,” Gillie said. “They took them to the school and gave them to 200 or 300 people who were there. Other girls took time to help their friends move things down from their homes. A lot of people reached out to each other.”
The school attempted to maintain some normalcy as the students continued attending classes and the athletes kept competing. One of the biggest areas of concern for the outdoor teams was the unhealthy air quality.
“We had some practices that were moved to the Nebo School District’s indoor facility,” Gillie said. “Every morning the air quality was terrible, but it usually cleared up around mid-day or so.”
The Nebo Invitational happened to be on a day when the air-quality index was hovering right around the point where the race would need to be cancelled, giving the Salem Hills cross country team some nervous hours leading up to the big event.
In the end, however, the air cleared up enough to allow the event to take place as planned.
There were some events that were moved or cancelled. The most notable was probably Skyhawk football team cancelling the game against Corner Canyon on Sept. 14.
It’s likely that all of the changes and concern took an emotional toll on the Salem Hills students and athletes, but Gillie said they had stayed strong through the whole process.
“We talked to our girls on the Saturday after the initial evacuations about grit and resiliency,” Gillie said. “We tried to prepare the team mentally. We told them to do as much as they could to find their routine, to understand that their parents would probably be more stressed so they needed to take care of themselves.”
With no homes lost and the evacuations now lifted, there has been improvement for the families who were affected. Gillie said getting to go home earlier than anticipated and having a weekend to readjust made a big difference — although they are still cautious since a flare-up could force them to leave again.
Throughout the last couple of weeks, Gillie has seen people grow and come together. He said the heightened challenges created by the fires brought a lot of the players closer together.
“They are more resilient than we give them credit for,” he said. “It’s been pretty miraculous.”