Soot, Sawing, and the Chance to Serve One Who Served
Three volunteers reflect on time spent helping a Midwest community recover from a rare and deadly wildfire.
On March 5, 2022, an unattended burn pile on a red-flag-warning day turned into a deadly fire that ripped through Reno County, Kansas, consuming more than 12,000 acres, killing one person, and destroying 35 homes, 92 outbuildings, and 110 vehicles. At least 10 other structures were damaged.
On April 1, Team Rubicon launched Salthawk Rising where, over the course of 10 days, Greyshirts cleared tens of thousands of cubic feet of debris and assisted 15 individuals.
For many Greyshirts, even those who have deployed on multiple operations, this wildfire recovery operation was unlike any other they have served on. Three share their reflections, now.
Taking Down Charred Trees and Lifting Up Stories of Extreme Bravery
On April 1, 2022, I was among the Team Rubicon Greyshirts who arrived on scene, east of Hutchinson, KS, to assist homeowners with cleanup efforts after the March 2022 fire that burned 12,000 acres in less than six hours.
Blackened cedar tree skeletons lined driveways where partial foundations were a reminder of former homesteads. Cottonwood trees with visible charring 30-feet-high reinforced the need for Team Rubicon sawyers and debris removal crews. And, we did.
It was an honor to get s*** done for these brave citizens who told stories about jumping in ponds and burying themselves in the sand in order to escape the inferno of such a fast-moving fire event.
Clearing a Path and Thanking a Veteran
Our first day on the job as a sawyer team was supporting a Vietnam veteran homeowner who barely escaped alive with his three dogs. His house had been reduced to a foundation, and that foundation was now filled with burned-out material and his property was now a collection of dead trees and foliage—and yet, he had a grateful spirit. He was thankful for us being there and he was able to see the positive in each day, each small step back to normalcy. That attitude is certainly contagious. We helped clear the power line to his house so it could someday be rewired, and we cleared snags at the driveway entrance so his new prefabricated home could eventually be delivered.
This was my first op as a sawyer and my first in a fire-devastated area. I’ve been plenty dirty on muck-out ops in the past, but the soot and ash on this job covered us totally.
The work was dirty, hard, and tiring—but so very rewarding to help this man and others during the week. As always the Greyshirts on this op were terrific people—but for this group, it was especially meaningful to help a Vietnam vet and tell him how grateful we were for his service.
Nothing but Burnt Land and the Will and Desire to Help
Salthawk Rising was a unique operation for the North Branch. We don’t generally have wildfires that cause the kind of devastation seen here. In the Midwest, we respond to tornadoes or floods, not wildfires! So, the stories we heard were not typical for this part of the country—out west maybe, but not here.
Here, we saw very few property owners on-site since there was nothing left to salvage and their homes were gone. Nothing but burnt land, trees, foliage, and what would be a concrete pad or the remains of a home’s foundation.
In partnership with the local VOAD, this operation started out as one to help homeowners clear their sites in preparation for rebuilding, but in addition, it quickly turned into a sawyer operation. We worked to clear burnt trees away from power lines and to make way for utility crews who would need access to what would be a home again someday. Our sawyer numbers were limited, but they worked tirelessly and without complaint—just a will and desire to help everywhere we could. The Greyshirts here were hardworking and resilient: they represented Team Rubicon as we would on any operation and it was an honor to lead this group. We came to Hutchinson to make a difference and we did! Proud to be Team Rubicon.