Team Rubicon: Veterans who aided Missoula flood victims now on scene of Colorado wildfire

FORBES PARK, Colo. (Courthouse News) – The third largest wildfire in Colorado history devastated Forbes Park, a small gated community in rural Costilla County populated by retirees and vacationers. Two weeks later, Team Rubicon, a veteran-run nonprofit response team remained on the ground to clear charred century-old trees off dirt roads so residents can start putting their lives back together.

The group brought the same relief and long days of hard work to Missoula last spring, when the Clark Fork River made a historic run outside its banks and into residential neighborhoods.

On the scene in Colorado now, operations section chief Mark Ambrose reminded volunteers that elderly and veteran residents were their first priority, followed by anyone else who seemed vulnerable.

“(There was another) one earlier today,” Ambrose recalled. “She’s not elderly, but she’s like a 27-year-old gal, and she’s still living in her fucking car. She’s a glassblower, had everything she’s ever had out there. She’s single, alone, fucking scared. No insurance, nothing. I want her as a priority too.”

The wildfire ignited June 27 by unsupervised campfire. Jesper Joergensen, a 52-year-old Danish citizen with an expired visa who was camping out in Costilla County, has been charged with 114 counts of arson – a count for each home destroyed in the fire. At first Joergensen told authorities he was burning trash, but later insisted he had been grilling.

Stirred up by wind and encouraged by single-digit humidity, the flames ignited drought-dried juniper, sage, Gambel oak and Ponderosa pine. Within a week, the spark grew into an 108,000-acre inferno. As it spread northeast of Fort Garland, the Spring Creek Fire destroyed 225 homes and caused some $32 million in damage.

At one point, 1,400 firefighters, 99 engines and eight helicopters worked in two different teams to contain the flames.

“People are going to be feeling this for 15, 20 years. Folks who thought they would sell their homes in a year or two, now they can’t,” Ambrose said, maneuvering his heavy-duty Ford pickup past a cleared lot. “This is a life-changing event.”

FEMA stepped in to cover 75 percent of Costilla County’s firefighting costs. The Colorado Farm Bureau donated $20,000 to victims.

And Team Rubicon gave 2,844 volunteer hours to Forbes Park, Wagon Creek and Paradise Acres, clearing 2,000 trees, and leaving a $75,000 impact.

Now more than 90 percent contained, the fire has moved northeast and will eventually burn itself out in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. But while the fire has passed, the problems have just begun for residents.

Flames melted windows into glass waterfalls that pooled and hardened over the remains of wood stoves. Patio furniture twisted into modern art and tool boxes melted into metallic bars.

Some homes survived unscathed. Others have only fireplace and chimney left standing, as unstable as the charred trees.

The one house Ambrose can’t get out of his mind faces west, right off the main road and across an alpine meadow. While the flames flattened the entire 1,500 square foot home, two yellow chairs on the back porch remained untouched.

“There’s nothing left but the two chairs facing out back,” Ambrose said. “It’s like their little slice of heaven, and it’s gone.”

Ambrose enlisted in the Army in 2005, and for 10 years worked his way up from mechanic to maintenance manager.

Portions of the blackened forest between wrecked homes remind Ambrose of being deployed in the Middle East.

“You could look out over the northeast side of Baghdad and it’s just a sea of palm trees … it just goes on for miles and miles and miles, there’s just this of dense forest of palm trees,” Ambrose recalled while driving between sites and inhaling the quiet air through open windows. “And then there were a few strikes when collision forces went through, and it looked the same after words, at least certain sections looked a lot like this.”

“This is one of the reasons why veterans are so well suited for this stuff,” Ambrose added. “Because the destruction, this doesn’t bother me. For a lot of us, we don’t even notice it. We just see the site that we’re working on, and we see the work that needs to be done, and we get to work.”

After his third hospitalization for wounds caused by an improvised explosive device, Ambrose medically retired as a sergeant with two fractured vertebrae, compressed discs and arthritis.

While he says his story is enough to give people nightmares, Ambrose copes by speaking openly about his experiences and considers his work at Team Rubicon therapy.

“I would have ended my life,” Ambrose said. “I was extremely close and the more I became involved in Team Rubicon, the bigger my family grew and it went away.”

Over three weeks, 67 volunteers camped at the Forbes Park Community Center to help clear the rubble. For Ambrose, sleeping on an army cot in an isolated cabin, eating meals with his brothers and playing spades into the night is “like wearing an old hat.”

Seventy percent of the taskforce has served in the military. In addition to representing all the main branches of the U.S. military, the Spring Creek mission was also joined by one veteran of the Queen’s Army.

“We’re a relatively new organization, but as Team Rubicon becomes known through the emergency management world, we’ve been asked to respond early on,” said incident commander Mike West. “Forbes Park has been very gracious to us, allowing us to set up in their community center, set up our equipment here, and we try to make sure we’re good neighbors.”

Team Rubicon first deployed in 2010, after Jake Wood and William McNulty – both Marines – saw news reports on a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Having recently returned from deployment, the Marines decided to get back in action and formed the organization to help the Caribbean nation recover.

The group’s name refers to the definitive moment in Julius Caesar’s invasion of Italy, when he crossed the fabled Rubicon River. It was the point of no return, when Caesar committed to moving forward.

In eight years, Team Rubicon has grown from eight men to 80,000 and participated in 250 other disaster cleanups, including in Houston after Hurricane Harvey swept through this past August.

The organization won the ESPY’s Pat Tillman Award for Service last week in recognition of its efforts. Tillman, a former National Football League player and an Army Ranger, was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.

“If Americans treated one another every day like they do after disasters, we’d live in a truly special place,” Wood said while accepting the award. “Our nation’s capacity to love its neighbors is near limitless after a Category 5 hurricane – we donate, we serve and we pray. Citizens cross the proverbial train tracks to help those they wouldn’t speak to the day prior. But why is it in the months following storm, we retreat back into our corners and dismiss the human beings we’d come to love just weeks prior? We can do better and we must do better.”

Residents in Forbes Park spoke of the team members with reverence reserved for superheroes.

“Aren’t you doing the story on them?” resident Dick Crabtree said when asked about the home he’s lived in for the last decade.

The Crabtrees, a retired couple, lost their home, a pickup truck, garage, woodshop and their daughter’s bicycle that they stored when she went to medical school. The lone survivors from their property are two carved bears, scorched but smiling from their evergreen perch next to the driveway.

“I keep thinking there’s something I need to go grab, and then I remember.” Crabtree said. “(Team Rubicon) came through the first day they were allowed in and took down all these trees that were considered hazardous. They’ve been fantastic.”

After the rubble is cleared, residents of the once tranquil town continue will remain vulnerable to flash floods and erosion until the forest regrows its roots.

“We knew coming into this fire season it would be bad, and we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Linda Smith, public information officer for the San Luis Valley region. “We’re trying to give residents the best information to be safe, but it’s going to be a long road to rebuild.”

Forbes Park is just one of a dozen communities in Colorado – and hundreds of communities across the West – scorched by wildfires. Some 65 large active fires from Alaska to Wyoming have scorched 736,643 acres. Since New Year’s Day, 35,000 wildfires have burned 3.6 million acres.

“It’s been a busy season for us; in the last month I’ve been to northern Arizona and Brownsville, Texas, for flooding,” said Team Rubicon volunteer Sam Brookenshire, a Marine.

Most alarming of all, this may be just the beginning for Colorado, where fire season is typically just getting underway. Caley Fisher, public information officer for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, confirmed: “The quick answer is it’s just the beginning.”