CASWELL — Following the devastation left by the McKinley Fire that started on Aug. 17, response efforts underway to help those who have lost homes are already making an impact.
Team Rubicon, a mostly veteran volunteer organization that responds to natural disasters, has been on the ground in Caswell since Aug. 30. Over the day-and-a-half of work, Team Rubicon was able to donate 180 work hours and 208 invested hours into helping the community of Caswell regroup.
The phone number to connect with Team Rubicon members at the Caswell Fire Station is (360) 975-7944.
Team Rubicon has assembled a group of 14 responders, nine of whom are from Southcentral Alaska and two who call Fairbanks home, including Incident Commander Rachel Alford.
Alford took time off from her day job as a paramedic, and Team Rubicon is filled with experienced first responders able to offer assistance to the community that other people could not. Team Rubicon has received leads for 30 properties and generated 14 work orders to assess and clean up those properties. By Sunday, Team Rubicon had put a day-and-a-half of work into four sites and completely finished work on one site. The volunteers that respond to Team Rubicon are not paid, and it costs the community of Caswell nothing to house the relief efforts from the volunteer responders. However, Team Rubicon tracks man hours and incident hours so that they are able to determine the amount of aid they have delivered to a community, and grants are available for reimbursement of what Team Rubicon has done.
“It’s just kind of camaraderie and we all know what it means just to go out and just help people. Regardless of who we are, it’s part of who we are to go out and help people,” said Andrew Friese. “It really does just make you feel good to be able to go out and be there for people. Really that’s all it’s really about is just lending a hand to people who need it.”
Friese is a retired wildland firefighter, and finished his day of work dirty from cleaning property affected by the McKinley Fire. Friese helps man the sawyer teams that respond after the assessment strike teams have responded to assess the damages to the property and determine how the skills of Team Rubicon can best be put to use. Among the members of Team Rubicon in Caswell are former wildland firefighters, structural firefighters, former law enforcement, paramedics, and EMT’s.
“I would define the end of the day as physically exhausted, mentally fatigued, and reminded that we’re all human and restored our faith. Doing these operations restores my faith in humanity,” said Peter Varney.
The 14 members of Team Rubicon that have assembled at the Caswell Fire Station will continue to respond to work orders until Sept. 7, and may determine future cleanup days as well depending on orders from the national office. While Team Rubicon will clear debris, they are unable to haul it. However, of the handful of people who walked into the Caswell Fire Station on Sunday after having heard about what Team Rubicon can do, one even offered to donate a piece of equipment. Part of what Team Rubicon is able to do is put affected homeowners in contact with other organizations who can help, depending on the specific need. Throughout their first few days on the ground in Caswell, Team Rubicon has worked seamlessly with the Department of Forestry, even literally working alongside them in one instance.
“They said this place is clear and gave us a safety brief. They were working on the next homesite over as we were working here and they’re offering guidance to us, where would you guys like to work next?” said Northwest Communications Manager for Team Rubicon Angelica Perales.
Perales is an Army veteran who got her start after it had been suggested to her by her Navy veteran mother four-and-a-half years ago. Perales worked up from general volunteer to City Communications Director and eventually Deputy Communications Lead for the Northwest Territory. Perales serves in state and also provides remote operation support for efforts in the Lower 48.
“Living up here, we generally like to help our neighbors and if we’re given a chance to do so on this scale to really go in there, most of us have been a type of first responder. It’s hard to fight that urge to go in but if we’re given a chance to go in and help people when it’s uncomfortable for others but we enjoy that, I think that’s a big consideration of why we all respond,” said Perales.
Unfortunately, most of what the McKinley fire left in its path were total losses. As Team Rubicon responded to a work order on Sunday from a former law enforcement officer, they came across a box that had somehow survived the fire.
“We found a small box of his prior law enforcement badges, his dog tags. He hadn’t mentioned it to us at all. When we opened it, it had obviously been touched by the fire but it was still there in one piece so today our safety officer was able to deliver that to him,” said Perales.
Prior to Friese and the sawyer teams responding to take down burned or damaged trees, Varney and the assessment team must respond to tell the story. Varney says that his role as the assessment team is to tell a story of how Team Rubicon may be able to help, and part of that is meeting with property owners after they have signed their release.
“They’re having some of the worst days of their lives so kind of come out here and at least kind of take some of that weight off their shoulders,” said Friese.
Varney works as a nurse in critical care, and has to deliver the news of loss almost every day. When responding to the Menard Center when it was being used as a shelter for displaced residents, Varney was one of the volunteers who delivered the news to each homeowner. During most of his interactions, he would ask one simple question, “do you hug?”
“You’re talking to someone about their loss and you can see the emotion, the raw emotion that is coming out of people and you ask them do you hug, and then they break down. What that question of do you hug asks, it is a gift of permission to be able to feel. Trying to be the rock, trying to get through life, trying to get through this loss and be there for everybody else and then the opportunity to feel in spite of everything that’s going on around you, that’s why I’m a designated hugger,” said Varney. “They’re going to be okay. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I can’t make promises of what your okay is going to look like but you guys are going to be okay. I believe in you, I believe that you’re going to get through this.”