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Kari Malkovich, Councilwoman, Woodland Hills, UT

In mid-September 2018, Woodland Hills City Councilperson, Kari Malkovich, was packing her bags for a trip to the Utah League of Cities and Towns Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. By the end of that week the clothes in the suitcase and on her back made up all she owned as she helped orchestrate from a camping trailer and LDS Church – the Command Center – the evacuation of her community’s 1,500 people and another 6,000 to 7,000 from surrounding towns in the south end of Utah County. This was an evacuation that was the single largest in Utah’s modern history.

Along with duties as a Woodland Hills Councilperson, Malkovich was recently sworn in (January 2019) as President of the Spanish Fork-Salem Chamber of Commerce (the two cities combined population approaches 60,000 people). She is past president of the Women’s Legislative Council and takes pride in being a Governing Board member of the Children’s Truth Foundation, which helps abused children obtain trauma therapy. As a graduate of Brigham Young University in public relations and marketing, Malkovich works for the Spanish Fork law firm of McKell, Thompson and Wise’s PR and marketing director; Mike McKell, a partner is a Representative in the Utah State Legislature.

And as forest fires were cresting the peaks above Malkovich’s community and other small communities with names like Covered Bridge Canyon, Elk Ridge, Payson, Salem and Spanish Fork, one of Malkovich’s political assignments; member of the Utah Lake Commission, was coming in handy as helicopters and converted sea planes of every size were swooping on Utah Lake and filling up with its waters. Then working to make a dent in what had become at the time the Number 1 fire in the United States on the Feds radar screen.

With the fires now out’s Clark H. Caras was able to spend a short time with Malkovich and reflect on being one of Utah’s most politically active individuals making a difference in the state. – So there you are on September 13, 2018 gathered with elected leaders and city officials from all over Utah and your council gets a call from the State Fire Marshall saying you might want to head home.

Malkovich – That’s exactly what happened. He said we might want to come home because it looked like a fire was making its way off the mountain and into our city of Woodland Hills that’s neighborhoods are scattered throughout the foothills. – What were your thoughts as you drove the 50 miles south out of Salt Lake City headed for your community?

Malkovich – I knew we had our sirens in place and our residents would know what to do when they heard them. I knew we’d been practicing the Wildland Interface Ordinances and being pro-active in fire safety for 10-years and it was about to be put to the test. We’d been trimming and pulling trees and bushes away from homes and buildings during all those years. – When you got home and you could see the fire burning down the mountain – what did you do as councilperson and as a mother?

Malkovich – I wasn’t able to get home. By the time we got there ash was falling everywhere like snow. The sirens where going off and we’d implemented the test messaging and emails warning citizens to get out because the fire was encroaching on the city.

The First Responders wouldn’t let me get to my home because by then it was a mandatory evacuation and the roads were filled with people and cars being directed off the mountain. It was my job to go to the command center predetermined and set up at the LDS Church that had been identified. – You had to have your own home on your mind, plus did you have children there?

Malkovich – Oh yes, I certainly did. And I had one high schooler there and three college age kids. I called them and just told them to fill the cars with anything that would make mom cry if we lost! And I told them to head off the mountain. Really though; I let them choose and told them to just come and find mom. – How long was it before you were able to get back up the hill and into your home, or for that matter any of the homes.

Malkovich – As a city council we stayed at that church for two weeks. We all were assigned a classroom and that became our bedroom and we slept on the floors there. I honestly can’t even tell you where the bedding came from? I just know it was there for us. In fact, whatever we needed was there for us. All we had to do was ask and you saw the miracle of friendship happen and anything you needed was there. – The miracle of friendship?

Malkovich – Yes. It was friendship and it was a miracle that saw all of those evacuees taken care of every day and night. My own daughters were taken in by a dear friend of mine, Utah State Senator Deidre Henderson District 7, who represents the cities evacuated and those put on stand-by to evacuate.

LDS wards and congregations would just show up with food. And on the very first Sunday more than 3,000 people were fed. Maceys (A Utah food store chain.) provided food and we had more than a dozen food trucks show up and prepared the food. All those who were fed including members of the community and many of the more than 2,000 fire fighters who were there. – Two weeks out of homes also meant you were out of the city offices as well. How did you keep a semblance of government and organization going?

Malkovich – (With a chuckle.) The mayor had her RV parked in the parking lot at the church with a lot of other evacuees and it became our temporary office. You can’t just shut the city down. We still had to pay our bills and function. All of the evacuees were brought together several times during the two weeks. We were able to bring our citizens together three times. All of the cities were able to cooperate and help each other. – If you were to point to some of the things that made it a success during those two weeks what would they be – especially with such a powerful comment as “miracle of friendship”.

Malkovich – We had all kinds of training and preparation before the actual event happened. People don’t want to leave their homes. It’s one of the hardest things to get someone to do, but because we’d had the sheriff and other first responders there in the community as our contracted police fore before anything happened, there was a level of trust.

Training was good, but in reality there just wasn’t time to think. By the time it became a crisis – the skill set became automatic and that was when the community social network kicked in and there was a level of trust we had with each other. I’m not sure I can ever repay any of those who were their each time I turned around. – I know at the end of the two weeks not one home, or even structure was lost to the fires, which were actually three fires totally more than 150,000 acres that essentially were kept from merging by the 2,000 firefighters on the lines. For you as someone who is as social as you are political, what was the support group you counted on most?

Malkovich – Both. I am part of a diverse group of women made up of Democrats and Republicans. It’s maybe 100 women who monthly are able to get at least 50 together for lunch. We call ourselves the “Troublemakers.” And we wear the title proudly as a very very diverse group.

In that moment – I didn’t have to think who I needed to call for help, because I knew this group of women would be there. And they were, both the political and the non-political. When it was all over I went to the dollar store and bought a bunch of fireman’s hats and tiaras and glued the tiaras to the hats. I passed them out to the “Troublemakers” as my thank you. I know a State Senator who has one in her office. – Out of all of this sleeping on a floor, living out of a suitcase, and having others make sure your needs were really met. What is the advice you would pass along to others as the most important thing you learned in it all?

Malkovich – Social network — friends. Because of a level of trust you have with each other, that is what will come in most handy and be most important. And they will just be there for you; at some point you turn around and they will be there with what you need, who you need taken in and given you the compassion and love you need to carry you through.

And although the group of “Troublemakers” I belong to has at least 100 women who are part of it; there are two of them I could have never made it through things without. One being Senator Henderson and the other Carolina Herrin (featured here just two months ago) who as a former Utah Highway Patrol officer was someone I counted on to help me as the designated Public Information Officer for the communities as we made our way through all of this. And that is important as there is not enough time to think, just do! – As we’ve talked you have mentioned a business that apparently was right there with the communities and firefighters at every turn and met most any request possible for the citizens and the 2,000-plus firefighters and first responders. And I’m sure without me even needing to mention it by name you know who I’m talking about.

Malkovich – No doubt in my mind whatsoever it’s Walmart. Any time we turned around and had that look of need on our face, Walmart was there to say, ‘What is it you need?’ There were times we didn’t even know what our need was, but they seemed to. We had Chap Stick for the firefighters and for us show up, jerky, snacks – Walmart would have it there for us in an hour and eventually every Walmart in the county was working in taking turns to be the one on a specific day to be meeting whatever was needed.

There was every snack in the world – granola bars, gum, candy bars, water bottles, Red Bull, other Monster drinks, soft drinks, string cheese. If someone overheard it being talked about near someone else it seemed as if it just suddenly appeared.

The firefighters were working in 12-hour shifts and besides the 2,000 who were there officially we had 100 firefighters from throughout Utah County who were Wildland Certified, there to help on days off. We found out later many where even taking vacation days to help.

That group of men and women had to provide their own meals, yet for two weeks someone was there organizing the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for them. Made sure the food trucks or restaurants volunteering cooked the meals and they were fed during the entire two weeks.

The schools were closed and we had children who depended on the program where they are fed. Walmart even worked with Nebo School District in setting up a fully stocked warehouse and commissary. – I have to apologize for taking our time to visit spending almost all of it on your experience with the fires, but it seems for western America forest and wildfires grabbed our attention and headlines for most of the summer and fall. For many the ending was not a happy one, but for your Woodland Hills and other neighbors it was by the hair of a chinny-chin not one life or building was lost?

Malkovich – Yes, the story of these fires was certainly a miracle. We did have friends and neighbors who as ranchers lost many of their most prized breeding cattle that were on private and federal ranges in the forests that went up in flames. – Many lessons had to have been learned by everyone from the Red Cross, communities, the sheriff’s department and other city sponsored first responder units, the Utah Legislature? What has been happening in that respect?

Malkovich – We’ve (Woodland Hills) been contacted by communities from six different states looking at our model of preparation. I’ve already testified before the Utah State Legislature about establishing a recovery and mitigation fund because right now there isn’t one. Our communities and others have a bill that is being sponsored in this Legislative session to establish this fund and begin to put money in it.

This has been listed as a federal incident, but that doesn’t pay for everything. It is typically, Feds-75%, and the locals 25%. It’s being estimated right now the price tag on this is $2.5 million. We need to get ready for the mudflows bound to come down from this, especially with the snows and rains we are getting. The foresters are estimating there is 18” to 24” of ash just waiting to come down on us. – Obvious question to you is this. How long have you been on the council? And do you plan on running again after all of this?

Malkovich – Absolutely. Yes, I’m going to run and I’ll serve if my community asks me to again. And even if they do not, I’ll be there to volunteer my time and any institutional knowledge I have that can be of help. – Can we have a bit more time to find out a little bit about Councilperson Malkovich the non-firefighter, or Troublemaker as you say the term has been coined? I have to ask. Are you a hamburger or cheeseburger person?

Malkovich – Who doesn’t love pickles? Yes, most definitely and it has to be dill pickles. In fact we just made a trip to England and we ran into a 5 Guys hamburgers and I was more worried about it having pickles than the French fries they are famous.

In fact, and this is not something I’ve never admitted to many; but my favorite sandwich is one of those many would call a “comfort sandwich”, and has to do with dill pickles and peanut butter. It has to be Dave’s Killer wheat bread I think can only be bought at Costco. They have to be the small crunchy dill pickles – baby petites. Then I slice those in half and lay them out on what has to be smooth peanut butter – no chunky allowed here.

And before you ask, yes, it’s something I’ve passed along to the six kids and seven grandkids. Do I know if they all eat them? All of them who can have eaten them with Grandma, which could be one of those things where they are just trying to please me. And how often to I indulge myself in what is not a guilty pleasure? How can it be guilty, especially when I like it? The frequency is about once a month. – Another thing we take a bit of an interest in is when you had any time to relax during the evacuation, what book or books did you find yourself reading for some enjoyment?

Malkovich – My husband and I love historical books and I find myself in the car so much I have moved to listening to audiobooks. Given I grew up in Idaho and with what I just experienced, I’m listening to “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan, chronicling the burning of the forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana in the summer of 1910.

The one I just finished and absolutely loved is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis; that is a memoir by J.D. Vance about his Kentucky Appalachian upbringing contrasted with the clash of cultures with his mother’s Ohio hometown. It’s a wonderful story of overcoming adversity.

And then finally I’m enjoying The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It is interviews with successful CEO’s from around the country.

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