PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A group of volunteer veterans returned to the small town of Otis for a second time in 2023 to help the community continue to recover from the devastation caused by a destructive wildfire.
It’s been two and a half years since the Echo Mountain Complex Fire ruined 288 structures in Northern Lincoln County. The natural disaster left many people without homes and without a place to go.
Team Rubicon, a veteran-led global disaster response organization, rallied a group of volunteers to visit Otis in late August, 2022, almost two years after the wildfire. At the time, the organization said more than 160 families were still displaced from their homes.
The volunteers quickly got to work clearing properties and dead, hazardous trees – things that needed to be done before some people could rebuild. The work also protects homes that are still standing from future wildfires.
At the end of that first trip to Otis, Team Rubicon knew they needed to return and continue to help the community.
“Disaster recovery takes a long time and it doesn’t just end several months after the disaster happens,” said Robert Marshall, incident commander for Team Rubicon’s operation called Onward in Otis.
The eight-day operation concludes Wednesday, March 15.
The group of veterans and civilians traveled to Otis from areas around the Pacific Northwest. Some even traveled from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska.
The responders include teams of chainsaw operators and volunteers who focus on removing organic debris. An incident command team also works off-site to coordinate site investigation and lead planning and logistics.
Marshall lives in Salem and said as an Oregonian, the damage caused by the Echo Mountain Complex Fire hits close to home.
“I’ve traveled Highway 18 a lot just to get to the coast when I wanted to visit the beach,” Marshall said. “Seeing the destruction that had occurred, I knew that I wanted to be part of an operation that was going to have such a significant impact on the community.”
After a week in Otis for Team Rubicon’s second operation there, Marshall said there was one story that really stood out to him. The team helped a 74-year-old woman who, after the fire, had spent her entire retirement savings on creating defensible space around her home.
Even after all her work, there was still more to do on the property. Team Rubicon helped her remove more debris and hazardous trees to complete what she’d started.
When the work was done, the woman asked the volunteers for one final favor. She had received a new, young tree and requested the volunteers dig a hole and plant it to help replace the dead or dying trees they had removed.
“It was almost symbolic in a way,” Marshall said. “We were there to take care of all the dead stuff and remove some of the wreckage that the fire had caused and for her to allow us to be part of her own personal regrowth story – planting that tree and starting new really meant a lot.”
Marshall isn’t sure if Team Rubicon will return to Otis a third time, but said the volunteers will never forget how the community welcomed them in with open arms.
For anyone who wants to help with Otis’ ongoing recovery efforts, Marshall asks that they make a donation to the Cascade Relief Team, a nonprofit that provides natural disaster relief assistance to Oregonians.
The Lincoln County Long-Term Recovery Group first requested Team Rubicon’s assistance. Executive Director Allyson West said Team Rubicon’s first visit to Lincoln County generated awareness and an additional 30 requests for assistance.
Otis-area residents who still need help removing trees and other debris can request it through the Lincoln County Long-Term Recovery Group’s website and Facebook page.