Devastation and Inspiration during the 2017 Santa Rosa Fire

Devastation and Inspiration during the 2017 Santa Rosa Fire

by Peter Finkle

Veterans Find Strength by Giving, through Team Rubicon

“My house is full of family evacuees. Two different fires. East and North of us. Been up all night. My heart is breaking.”  

I read this Facebook post from one of my family members as I was anxiously following news of the devastating Santa Rosa, California fire that broke out October 9th, 2017. My cousins had to evacuate their homes on short notice as the disastrous fire roared through nearby neighborhoods.

My cousins saw fire trucks in town from the San Francisco area, from Southern California and from Oregon. Even my small town of Ashland, Oregon sent a crew and a fire truck to help out.

A surprising group was there in addition to the firemen and other first responders. A group of veterans came to Santa Rosa to support the first responders’ efforts, as part of Team Rubicon.

Team Rubicon…the Big Picture

Team Rubicon is dedicated to helping communities immediately after natural disasters. Founded in 2010, Team Rubicon is made up primarily of veterans who want to continue to be of service. Team Rubicon is an amazing story, because through this service to others, the veterans are helped as well.

Team Rubicon provides veterans with:

  • Purpose, through giving
  • Community, through serving others together
  • Self-worth, from making a difference

I want to tell you a little bit about the story behind the media sound bites. In terms of the big picture, Team Rubicon responded in 2017 to 63 local and national disasters. 4,267 Team Rubicon veteran volunteers put in 217,745 hours of hard work helping communities heal and helping themselves heal.

The Dirtier the Job, the Bigger the Grin”

(Former firefighter Brian Liu writing about Team Rubicon volunteers he worked with)

Team Rubicon…Santa Rosa

Huge, multiple wildfires started in the Northern California wine country on October 9, 2017. Within days, one of the fires had destroyed over 5,500 buildings in and around Santa Rosa, home to 175,000 people.

Team Rubicon responded, as they have in response to hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, even after 4′ of snow dumped on Erie, Pennsylvania.

Team Rubicon Region 9 (CA, NV, AZ, HI) put out a request for help from their members on October 18. The response was dramatic:

“We put out the alert less than 12 hours ago…and 350 Niners have already answered the call…Hang tight Santa Rosa…Region IX is en route!”

The story of local Marine Corps veteran Rick Milburn is sad but inspring. He had recently returned home to Glen Ellen, California (near Santa Rosa) after working with Team Rubicon on Hurricane Harvey disaster relief in Texas. Then in the middle of the night, a huge fire roared through Glen Ellen. It destroyed a quarter of all the small town’s homes, including Rick’s home. Despite this, he volunteered with Team Rubicon’s wildfire response to help his neighbors and the people of Santa Rosa.

How Team Rubicon Helps Veterans

In his TED talk, Jake Wood, co-founder and CEO of Team Rubicon said: “We can use disaster response as an opportunity for service for the veterans coming home. Recent surveys show that 92% of veterans want to continue their service when they take off their uniform.”

Many groups in America try to assist veterans with the difficult transition from military life back to civilian life. Jake and his team have found that problems veterans have with mental health issues, housing and finding work are often symptoms of deeper issues. The three key issues Team Rubicon has identified are lack of purpose, lack of community and lack of self-worth or identity.

Team Rubicon is built around training, leadership development, camaraderie, and helping others as a way to rebuild and strengthen these three key traits in the veteran volunteers. By serving through disaster relief, veterans use their skills, learn new ones, and feel valued and valuable.

Team Rubicon knew it was on the right track when spouses of veterans who participated would say: “thanks for giving me my husband back. I didn’t even know who my husband was anymore. And now there’s that spark inside of him again. That’s the person that I loved and married.”  (from Jake Wood interview on Deloitte Resilient podcast)

Multiply these stories by thousands and you have an idea of the impact Team Rubicon has on the lives of our veterans. That’s in addition to their work with first responders and others providing disaster relief, which gives practical help and inspiration to those living in the impacted communities. Here is something my cousin Ken wrote shortly after the fire.

“After the last couple of weeks filled with tragedy, loss, heart break, confusion, AND inspiration: Last night, about dusk, I was on my front porch and off in the distance I could hear someone playing Amazing Grace on bagpipes. I almost cried.”


I will leave you with a quote from my cousin Ron’s wife Lynn, just back in their home after they had to evacuate while the fire destroyed big parts of Santa Rosa.

We are home and all is well. I cried when I saw our little house – just feel so grateful for all the efforts from all the wonderful heroes who worked and are continuing to work so hard to control these fires.”

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