The all-veteran disaster response group Team Rubicon is used to cleaning up after things like earthquakes and hurricanes. But for six weeks this summer in Grand County, they switched to a 'pre-disaster' model that could have nationwide impact.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct amount of the grant from The American Red Cross.
Francie de Vos is happy she answered the phone on the day the representative from the Grand County Wildfire Council called and told her about an opportunity worth $5 to $10,000 but that would cost her nothing if she agreed to let some strangers onto her property in Fraser.
De Vos lives on a 2.2-acre parcel in Icebox Estates, which is bordered by an 11-acre plot on one side and a 500-acre one on another. Before the strangers came, when she looked out her sunroom window, she saw “complete standing snags,” a landscape of “giant pickup sticks.” But after learning what the group of men and women could do, she called her next-door neighbor, who lives in California, and asked her to sign a right-of-entry form for her land. The neighbor understood why de Vos was asking. If firefighters — or other emergency management types — lacked the right to access her property, they couldn’t protect it. The crew wanting to go onto it now hadn’t come during a blaze, though.
Instead, they had come to do “pre-disaster” work, to clear homeowners’ properties of fuel that could feed a future fire. So far, they had cleaned up dozens of properties, making them safer. And although not all of de Vos’s neighbors appreciated their work — some saying “They left the logs down” after they were done — de Vos did.
“As the guys explained it, they’re a lot more concerned about crown fires, because if they can get them down on the ground, they can control them better,” she said. “And you can move through (the property behind my house) now. Before, you wouldn’t have been able to. It was horrible.”
De Vos was a beneficiary of the disaster response organization Team Rubicon, which arrived in Grand County on May 25. Between then and their departure, on July 11, they helped reduce wildfire hazards by clearing home ignition zones and creating fuel breaks in several neighborhoods.
According to the Grand County Office of Emergency Management, which coordinated their stay, Team Rubicon assessed 117 homes for wildfire risk and mitigated 108 homes. The monetary value of their work totaled between $640,000 and $1.3 million. The assessments they did — walking people’s land and diagnosing their fire risk — were communicated to the homeowner if they were available (arguably the most important step in the process, says emergency management office deputy director Alexis Kimbrough). And depending on what each homeowner wanted, they would either cut the trees they felled into firewood or dispose of them with a chipper.
The work amounted to a kind of pilot project for Team Rubicon, said Grand County Emergency Director Joel Cochran. Whereas in the past, they have mobilized to clean up after disasters, they’d come to Grand County to help minimize the potential for disaster.
“Incident Commander Duane Poslusny had this idea,” Cochran said. “When we’re not active (helping communities after disasters) what could we be doing to help a community harden itself (in advance of a disaster)? That, I think, is much bigger than volunteers just coming and cutting trees. Duane brought his team here for six weeks to make this community more resilient.”
Veterans helping others and ‘having each other’s backs
Team Rubicon serves communities by mobilizing veterans to continue their service through leveraging their skills and experience to help people prepare, respond and recover from disasters and humanitarian crises.
Founded in 2010 by a group of Marines in response to the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti that killed a reported 220,000 people, the organization has grown to more than 150,000 volunteers across the United States and has launched over 1,000 operations both domestically and internationally. They’ve been active in Colorado since 2013, and were in Grand County over the Sept. 11, 2020, weekend to help clear a right-of-way for the East Troublesome Fire.
When they returned this spring, it was through a $200,000 grant from The American Red Cross. Grand County ponied up an additional $8,500 for fuel costs. The East Grand School District allowed the group to set up camp inside Middle Park High School, and the emergency management office, Grand County Wildfire Council, East Grand Fire Protection District and Grand Fire provided oversight.
The command staff arrived on May 25; volunteers came in waves, flying into Denver International Airport and driving rental cars to Grand starting on June 3. Poslusny said his team averaged 35 volunteers at a time, and topped out at 50, from around the country and Canada over a five-week period. For a lot of them, working with Team Rubicon on a shared goal that helps others is as valuable as the money they saved people like de Vos by clearing her property.
Jen Nieder, Team Rubicon’s field leadership logistics section chief coach, was in the Navy for five years and her husband is still on active duty.
“One of the things that draws vets to Team Rubicon is the camaraderie and the fact that so many of us speak the same language,” she said. “When you’re in the military, especially the Marines or Army, one of the concepts we have is ‘I’ve got your back.’ So when we come out on these operations and get to do these dangerous things with very concentrated teamwork, that draws a lot of vets to hang out with each other again. They don’t miss the job but the fact that they can call on someone any time of day and have someone looking out for them is (important).”
Out in the field, small crews chain-sawed trees, bucked them up, and stacked them in piles. The work was grueling. One afternoon, a dozen or so of them were clearing a 30-acre area in the Winter Park Highlands neighborhood of Tabernash. The high-elevation sun beat down on chain saw wielding vets in heavy, protective chaps.
Dave LaRivee served 30 years in the Air Force and also participates in Team Rubicon for the camaraderie. He spent multiple weeks working in Grand County working as the team’s saw boss.
“Lots of people came because they like to use chainsaws or the physical labor of hauling wood, but probably the biggest thing is (they) come out here to join together, be on a team and do something worthwhile for somebody else,” he said.
Having such a large and effective group out in the county is allowing local officials to focus on other high-need areas, according to Grand Fire District Fire Chief Brad White.
“Team Rubicon was able to bring a small army with them … and cover a lot of ground in six weeks,” said White. “As a veteran-operated group, they were able to work with and connect many property owners to create a large project, in several cases creating better defensible space for all involved. That’s something that would take us a better part of a year to coordinate, and another summer to do the work. The team was able to make some big improvements in a few areas that had been high priority to the Fire Districts, and the Grand County Wildfire Council for a while. We’re now able to scratch those off the list, and seek additional funding and move to other priority areas.”
To give and to receive
When a person or operation does work like Team Rubicon does, they often get a surplus of good tidings in return.
Mavericks Grille fed the Grand County crews dinner from time to time. Winter Park Resort and Flying Heels Arena both offered them tickets to weekend activities and events. Several residents did things like bringing them donuts, grilling them hamburgers or coming outside while the team worked on their land, to personally thank them and shake their hands.
De Vos, who started what would become Carvers Bakery in 1983, says she was skeptical at first about a group wanting to do free work on her property.
“But then Duane came up and I got a group of neighbors that met their initial criteria (for mitigation),” she said. “We had a meeting at the library. He asked if I could invite some other neighbors. We opened it up to everyone, and between Duane’s emails and phone calls and that meeting, when the crew started showing up, it was like you’d always known these people.”
“These guys were the nicest folks,” de Vos continued. “I mean, they were thanking us for working on our property. I made them lunch — a German-Russian homemade bread dough filled with a ground beef, cabbage and onion mixture, potato salad and Rice Krispies cookies with macadamia nuts! There were 10 to 12 of them eating on my patio, some from Alaska, Pennsylvania, from all over. It was a pleasure getting to know them.”
But an even bigger boon for Team Rubicon was the new disaster-response territory their work in Grand County took them into.
“I can’t stress enough how important a project this was for Team Rubicon,” says Kimbrough. “They have never done fire mitigation projects before. They’re a disaster cleanup organization. This is the first, longest in duration and scope, fire mitigation project they have ever done. And Jonas Reynolds, Team Rubicon’s west branch director of operations, is trying to figure out how to use this as a model for the entire western region, including Idaho, Utah, Oregon, California. I can’t stress how exciting it is that it happened here.”
A lasting impact
Few truly good deeds go unnoticed, and so it was for Team Rubicon in Grand County.
On July 5, the Office of Emergency Management nominated Poslusny for a Coin of Excellence award for spearheading “Operation Rage against the Ravine,” which pulled together over 241 volunteers from all over the country and Canada and “led to the education of property owners on strategies for resiliency against future wildfires with Home Ignition Zone assessments and mitigation by creating fuel breaks in high-hazard areas.”
“It’s really amazing to me that a group of veterans (who) we already owe a debt of gratitude to for their service would spend their free time and come back to Grand County for a second year to help our community with our wildfire problem,” White said. “They came last year in a time of need to help our community clean up after the East Troublesome Fire, and I think they fell in love with Grand County. … This pre-fire mitigation work is a new endeavor for them and I think it’s great they had enough connection and trust in us and our community to come pilot a program here.”
“They did a wonderful job,” added de Vos. “I was at Safeway this morning and I saw a neighbor. She’d had work done on her property too and she said, ‘Doesn’t our neighborhood look nice?'”
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