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These vets are picking up the pieces after California's wildfires

Team Rubicon volunteers sift through ash from the Lilac Fire in San Diego and find jewelry and a Christmas ornament.
Team Rubicon volunteers sift through ash from the Lilac Fire in San Diego and find jewelry and a Christmas ornament.
Photo Courtesy Team Rubicon

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In the wake of several California wildfires, a group of veterans and active military volunteers are toiling through the holidays to help fire victims get back on their feet.

Yusra Kauppila spent five years with the U.S. Marines, with one deployment to Iraq. She evacuated from her home because of the Lilac Fire in San Diego County that started in early December, but she didn’t go very far.

Kauppila works as a planning section chief with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit volunteer group made up mostly of U.S. military veterans but that includes active-duty service members.

Kauppila’s team is helping San Diego residents affected by the fire in what Rubicon calls Operation Old Breed. The volunteers are clearing debris and sifting through the ashes of burned homes to find what possessions they can. She said it wasn’t hard getting volunteers out over the holiday.

Team Rubicon, a volunteer group of veterans and active military, gather for a picture.
Team Rubicon, a volunteer group of veterans and active military, gather for a picture.
Photo Courtesy Team Rubicon

“A lot of veterans don’t like to be home, especially if they’re alone,” Kauppila said. “A lot of them volunteered specifically just to be around their tribe.”

Active-duty Marine Corps Captain Michelle Lewis volunteered at the Creek Fire in the Sylmar area. Lewis drove from Twentynine Palms to clear away trees with a chainsaw on Christmas Eve. She says she was particularly touched by one woman who found a collection of porcelain pigs that she thought she had lost in the fire.

“She was just so joyful,” Lewis said. “You know ... one had a broken ear and she said, ‘Oh, that one was actually broken before the fire.’ So just little things like that ... kind of giving them a little bit more hope.”

While efforts are winding down after the Creek Fire, cleanup efforts are just getting started in Ventura County, where the Thomas Fire continues to burn in what has become the state's largest recorded wildfire.

Team Rubicon plans to launch a team of about 30 volunteers to help with the Thomas Fire cleanup, just as the rest of us ring in the new year.