Volunteer blitz clears burned trees two years after Echo Mountain Fire
When Lucy Dickens got out of the Army two years ago, she found out pretty quickly that one thing she missed was the camaraderie and shared mission that came from being in the military.
“I just missed being around other veterans, other people fighting to make a difference for their country and their people,” she said.
Dickens is one of a team of about two dozen veterans from up and down the west coast who came to the small, unincorporated town of Otis with an organization called Team Rubicon. Their mission: to help clear charred trees from the properties of homeowners in the path of the Echo Mountain Fire, which swept through the community on Labor Day, 2020.
Team Rubicon is a non-profit that responds to natural disasters around the world. Many of its volunteers have previously served in the military.
Army veteran Matt Akers came from Seattle to serve as the incident commander in Otis, overseeing the team that's felling trees and sawing them into pieces.
“These trees are very expensive to be cut down," said Akers. "One of the great things about Team Rubicon is we’re able to come out and offer these services free of charge to the homeowners and the community.”
The people benefiting from this day’s work are Marc and Cheri McPherson. The two walked around taking meal orders from the volunteers working on their property.
Marc said he vividly remembers the night two years ago when a raging wildfire descended on their home of 18 years.
“We actually bugged out about one o’clock in the morning," he said. "We had no choice. We had embers flying over the house about the size of my body on fire, burning. And seeing the wind had shifted, coming this direction from Panther Creek. The temperature rose about 50 degrees within seconds, and we knew it was all over for the neighborhood at that time.”
The McPhersons ended up living in a hotel for the next two and a half months. They were among the lucky ones. Their house was badly damaged but was not among the nearly 300 homes the wildfire destroyed. But McPherson said repairing their home was only part of the recovery process. Their property was still covered with burnt, dead trees that could fall at any time. And he said their homeowner’s insurance wouldn’t pay to have them removed.
“We were so utterly under-insured," he said. "They covered $13,000 for the entire five acres, which was gone with the first cutting of the trees that they needed just to gain access back into the property.”
Cheri McPherson says when she learned that Team Rubicon volunteers would clear the hazardous trees from their property for free, she just couldn’t believe it.
“We thought we were going to have to live with this," she said. "We’re too old to take down trees, so we’re thrilled that these people are here for us.”
Team Rubicon’s Matt Akers says that’s the kind of reaction that motivates many of the volunteers.
“We’re just thrilled to be here to be a small component in the recovery effort," he said. "We know that it’s been a long road for the homeowners here, and will continue to be a long journey to recovery. But we hope this week that we’re here is a small step in that direction.”