McKinley Fire

A section along the Parks Highway is burned from the McKinley Fire.

CASWELL — From the ashes of the McKinley Fire, community members who escaped the fire are organizing to help their neighbors pick up the pieces. John Newsom, a Caswell resident and Administrator for Team Rubicon, is organizing a labor force to help those homeowners whose property felt the flames of the McKinley fire to pick up what is left.

The McKinley Fire is now up over 70 percent containment after it started on Aug. 17. Thursday saw the highest Build Up Index (BUI) in 19 years with a level of 175. The BUI is a level of fire danger accumulated by dry conditions, and has been breaking records consistently over the last week. As fire crews close in on a wildfire that still burns weeks later, the Division of Forestry is able to get a more accurate picture of the damage.

“Now that we’re getting more and more containment, we’re able to do more accurate acreage mapping of what the footprint actually is,” said DOF Public Information Officer Stephanie Bishop.

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Bishop said that the total acreage was down to 3,316 as of Thursday. Signs of the devastating fire that tore down the Parks Highway are still visible like bundles of burnt trees piled up, but so are the signs of a community working together.

Dozens of painted signs along the Parks Highway thank firefighters, the Division of Natural Resources, the Division of Forestry, first responders, and all of those who battled the blaze. The signs describe those who fought the fire as heroic, strong, brave, and more than a dozen other adjectives praising them for their work. On Hidden Hills Road in Caswell, a plywood sign of a yellow forestry shirt simply reads “hero x-ing.”

“All those trees were either removed by [Matanuska Electric Association] because they were near the line still so they had to clear them out. or they were such a hazard because our duff is what has been holding a lot of these trees down. That’s what the big difference is in Sockeye and now is we have the duff and it burned up and that’s what was kind of helping hold those roots down and trees are falling out,” said Bishop.

Team Rubicon formed in 2010 when two former Marines felt compelled to help respond to the earthquake in Haiti. The organization of 105,000 volunteers is made up of 70 percent veterans, and responds to help in situations of need. Newsom put out the official notice to nationwide leaders on Wednesday and was expecting arrivals on Friday. Team Rubicon is also responding to the impending Hurricanes on the East Coast. The Caswell Fire Station will house and host the base of operations for 25 volunteers, five of whom are Alaskans and Newsom has already begun contacting homeowners who may want help sifting through the debris left by the McKinley Fire. The Team Rubicon volunteers assembled at station 13-1 will then assist homeowners however they can based on the skills they bring. Newsom retired from the Air Force in 2003, where he was a pilot. He continued to teach flying in Alaska with Boeing twice during his 11-year career following the Air Force, and decided to make Caswell his home in retirement. Newsom remembered driving down near the fire station and hearing the call to evacuate over a loud speaker.

“We got out as soon as possible. We got down to the Parks Highway turned left and we actually went through the fire tunnel. I mean there was fire on both sides of us and it was so hot that we felt it inside the truck as we drove through it,” said Newsom.

Newsom stressed that the volunteers with Team Rubicon are not first responders, but are focused on helping with recovery while maintaining the safety of people and property. Newsom will be leading a team of 25 strong to offer as a fast acting labor force for those that need help cleaning up. Joining Newsom at station 13-1 as the first volunteers arrived was licensed counselor and Army veteran Maria Ballard.

“I started looking for ways to give back to the community and those two kind of collided so I signed up and now I’m state wellness manager for Team Rubicon,” said Ballard.

Newsom met Bishop on Thursday and received updated maps of properties that were marked as safe to enter as Team Rubicon begins reaching out to help victims of the McKinley Fire. Not only will Newsom lead the nationwide volunteers responding from out of state stationed out of the Caswell Fire Station, but the organization is set up to accept volunteer labor working with them. Newsom believes that the word has already begun spreading, and he may be leading a large community of neighbors willing to help clean up. As the volunteers for Team Rubicon arrive down the Parks Highway, they’ll see the signs that describe the most recent efforts by those working to protect the Caswell community, and hope to show signs of rebuilding before they leave.

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