Missionary from Pleasant Grove evacuated in Australia due to wildfires

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PLEASANT GROVE — The family of a missionary serving in Australia spoke with KSL about their son’s experiences after being evacuated due to wildfires.

When you go to the Leetham’s Pleasant Grove home and talk to Shannon and Daren about their son, they can’t stop smiling.

“I am so proud of him,” said Shannon. “He loves to help people. He loves to serve people.”

Elder Derek Leetham, age 19, has been serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Australia, where wildfires continue to rage.

Elder Leetham has spoken with his parents to reassure them everything is okay, but they said they can’t stop worrying.

“I haven’t slept very well, to be honest with you, the last few days,” said Daren. “I could hear the uneasiness in his voice. That was when I first could tell that he was concerned.”

Wildfires have been burning close to where Elder Leetham was staying in Narooma, which is in the state of New South Wales.

Those fires have forced many people to evacuate.

“It was just all the ash and everything that was coming down – and the pictures he sent were just incredible,” said Shannon.

The family showed KSL some of those pictures.

They showed an orange-red colored sky, similar to NASA photos on the surface of Mars, except these photos contained dark-gray smoke blurring out the sun.

“This was a no-filter picture,” Shannon said while looking at one picture. “It was an actual picture of what the sky looked like. He said he has never seen blood-red sky like that before. He said it was an eerie feeling.”

Elder Leetham, his mission companion and others were taken to another town where members of an Anglican Church were serving food to everyone evacuated.

Instead of sitting on the beach, the young missionary jumped in to help.

“He helped make lunch and dinner, and told me has never cooked so much meat before,” said Shannon Leetham. “It’s service. There were a lot of people who needed food and help.”

“People are people. It doesn’t matter if they’re our religion or not, and he sees that,” said his father, Daren. “They just wanted to help as many people as possible.”

They can't see the flames because they can't see anything. The fires could be 5 minutes away or 15 minutes, and they wouldn't know.

–Daren Leetham

As the wildfires continued to burn, though, Elder Leetham and his mission companion were sent to Sydney because of all the smoke in the Narooma area.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Daren. “They said they can’t see the flames because they can’t see anything. The fires could be 5 minutes away or 15 minutes, and they wouldn’t know.”

The Leethams said they were thankful so many firefighters from other countries have traveled to Australia to help.

That includes the handful of firefighters from Utah.

“It’s unreal to get your head around it, how big these fires really are,” said Jason Porter, a wildland firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management.


Porter, who lives in Duchesne, spoke to KSL before he left for Australia. He’s there now fighting the fires to get them under control.

“Obviously, people are suffering down there. They’re losing homes. Their communities are impacted pretty hard right now,” said Porter.

It’s hard for the Leethams to hear that being so far away, but they said at least their son is contacting them to let them know he’s okay. ”The number one rule as a missionary is don’t let Mom worry,” said Daren.

“Yeah,” said Shannon.

Anything to keep them smiling.


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Alex Cabrero
Alex Cabrero has been reporting for KSL-TV for nearly two decades. He has covered a variety of stories over the years from a variety of places, but he particularly enjoys sharing stories that show what's good in the world.


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