The brave men and women who join the armed forces, do so because they have an overwhelming desire to serve their country. Yet, when they are forced to hang up their uniforms and transition back into civilian life, that desire to serve doesn’t just go away.
So when a community in Arizona was left devastated after a camper’s negligence destroyed everything they had worked their entire lives for, a group of veterans came together to rebuilt the community’s hope while also finding new purpose…
The First Sighting
Just before noon on April 27, 2018, someone in the Coconino National Forest, a 1.856-million acre U.S. national forest in northern Arizona, spotted what looked like flames spreading rapidly from 1 of the tower lookouts in the forest.
Forest rangers and fire officials were immediately sent out to investigate the fire and try to contain it as quickly as possible since they knew the dry weather conditions were unfortunately perfect for a forest fire. When they got there, officials were horrified by what they saw…
The Abandoned Campfire
When officials arrived at the source of the flames, they found evidence of an abandoned illegal campfire, which a careless camper had left behind. Not only is it negligent to abandon a fire in the middle of a forest, but stage 1 fire restrictions had actually been put in place that prohibited building a fire at all.
Stage 1 Fire Restriction
According to forest officials, a stage 1 fire restriction, which is when “building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire” anywhere other than developed campsites and picnic areas, had been put in place because the dry weather conditions drastically increased the potential for a fire…
Reckless And Illegal
“Any time we enter restrictions or have even closed the forest, we still continue to find abandoned and illegal campfires,” said Andy Pederson, an official from the US Forest Service. “This shows extreme lack of care for public safety and our natural resources when people would have an illegal campfire, much less abandon an illegal campfire.”
A Perfect Storm
Unfortunately, the conditions were just right when the camper recklessly decided to leave behind their still burning, illegal campfire. By the time fire and forest officials arrived at the source to inspect it, it was already spreading too fast to contain…
The Tinder Fire
Over the next few days and weeks, the fire rapidly spread and was fed by dry grass and undergrowth. Firefighters fought as hard as they could to contain the spread, but it didn’t work. Soon enough, the fire, which is being called the Tinder Fire, spread through the forest and into residential communities.
Since the fire couldn’t be stopped, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office ordered several communities in the area to evacuate as the fire was unpredictable and showed no signs of stopping. Knowing it was too dangerous to stay, residents had no choice but to leave almost everything they owned behind…
A Losing Battle
While residents in northern Arizona were forced to flee their homes with as much of their belongings as they could fit in their cars, the fire was consuming everything in its path. Ultimately, the campfire burned through more than 16,000 acres.
According to officials, 87 structures have been completely destroyed in the fire, including 33 primary residences and 54 minor structures. After tirelessly fighting to contain the fire, firefighters have been able to contain about 95 percent of the flames…
Residents have since been allowed back to their homes, or what’s left of them, and many have been left devastated by what they found upon their return. “It’s just so much to lose,” said Cindy Kenniger, whose home was decimated by the fire.
Grasping Their Loss
“You leave thinking you’re going to be back, so you don’t take everything that really means a lot to you and you don’t have room for,” said Cindy, who managed to grab some photos and important documents when she was forced to flee her home. Yet there is a lot Cindy didn’t get to take with her, and she and her husband, Jerry, are still struggling to grasp everything…
“Usually when you move, you have a reason for moving,” Jerry said. “You have a job or whatever, you know? You have a destination, something in mind. When this happens, I didn’t plan on moving. Now I have to, basically. And that’s kind of weird. I’ve never been in that situation.”
While many local residents have been left completely crushed and hopeless about the situation, volunteers from Team Rubicon, an International non-government organization founded by U.S. Marines William McNulty and Jacob Wood, decided to rebuild some of that hope for them…
According to Team Rubicon, their goal is to provide much-needed aid to areas affected by disasters, since traditional disaster response is often slow to respond and inadequate, while also giving veterans, who comprise about 70 percent of volunteers, a way to continue to serve their country while also reintegrating into civilian life.
A New Way To Serve
“As some veterans transition from military to civilian life, it can be difficult to regain the purpose, community, and identity that is apparent in the military. Continued service through disaster response allows many veterans to regain that sense of mission-focus, that feeling of being a part of something larger than oneself,” Team Rubicon explained. “At our core, Team Rubicon is about neighbors helping neighbors. When crisis strikes our communities, we come together to help others on their darkest day. Why do we serve? Because it’s what we do…”
In the weeks after the Tinder Fire was contained, members of Team Rubicon in Arizona have been sent out to help residents clean up the debris so they can start rebuilding their lives. “We’re just the brute muscle,” said Magdy Zakhary, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Healing Through Service
“You don’t really ever get used to seeing someone so crushed, so devastated,” said Zakhary, 1 of about 40 volunteers from Team Rubicon who has been sent out to help people affected by the wildfire. According to Zakhary, his efforts with Team Rubicon is not only rebuilding hope for disaster survivors, but it’s also helped him get his own life back on track…
A Dark Moment
After getting injured, going on disability, and losing his home, Zakhary was so lost and hopeless that he was ready to end his own life. “Right as I’m putting the gun to my head, I hear the door squeal. I immediately stopped, and I knew my daughter was coming out of the room,” said Zakhary.
Spreading The Light
The next day, Zakhary saw a story in the news about Team Rubicon and knew he was meant to join the team. “It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. That sunshine you need when you’re going through something really dark.” Now, Zakhary is hard at work in Arizona shining light on Tinder fire survivors. So far, he and his fellow volunteers have worked 2,448 hours and have helped save more than $70,000 in costs.