Operation Slow Snow

Here I go again with the boring refrain. It’s been too long since I did a blog post. Sigh. You’d think I’d learn. But I had a good excuse this time.

2018.03.10 AM & ASM Slow Snow

(Photo by Irv H. TR Canada – The ASM & AM cut firewood)

This winter has been rough for everyone, but the northern tier of the county got hit really hard in January and February. For example, the Highline of Montana—stretching from the east side of Glacier to the border of North Dakota—has been deluged with snow and cold.

“But, they’re used to that, right?”

Yes, but not like this. Normally, the weather in Montana gets cold and snowy, then warms to above freezing for a few days, then plunges back down. Those warm stretches allow the snow to crust over, preventing it from drifting. That didn’t happen this year. Blowing and drifting snow blocked major highways for weeks. People had to tunnel out of their own homes. Propane trucks couldn’t get to houses and woodpiles were buried under feet of drifting snow. And for the elderly and remote, it was truly difficult. Snowmachine was the only way to reach some houses.

Since I’m the Montana State Administrator for Team Rubicon (teamrubiconusa.org – Disaster is our Business, Veterans are our Passion), I attend meetings of the Montana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Montana is a big state, so we ‘meet’ on the phone, especially during emergencies. During January, February and March, I spent many hours on the phone, listening to the needs of communities and figuring out what, if anything, we could do to help. Finally, a project came up where Team Rubicon could be effective.

The United Methodist Church in Columbia Falls (west of Glacier National Park) got several truckloads of logs delivered to support the Blackfeet Tribe in Browning, Montana (just to the east of Glacier National Park) but they had no chainsaws. A few hardy souls came over from western Montana and cut firewood, but not enough. They needed more help. A perfect mission for Team Rubicon—we excel at hard, physical labor activities.

However, we don’t have large numbers of Team Rubicon members in Montana—there just aren’t a lot of people here, one of the many reasons to live in Montana. So, to make this work, we needed help. We also didn’t have much time, certainly not enough time for me to travel from the southwest part of Montana to the north-central and figure out exactly what we were walking into. It took me many hours of emails and phone calls, but I eventually got enough information to write the required documents and get Operation Slow Snow approved in a just couple of days.

A small, but hearty team traveled to the frozen north. TRibe came from Missoula, Kalispell, Helena and Seattle, Washington. On our way, Starbucks in Missoula donated coffee and Evans Ace Hardware in Hamilton donated badly needed chainsaw chains. Once we arrived, the Browning United Methodist Ministries welcomed us with hot cooked meals and a comfortable place to sleep. After a hearty hot-cooked breakfast, we fielded four saw teams to start cutting firewood.

Why teams? Because running chainsaws is inherently dangerous. We make it as safe as possible by always wearing full personal protective equipment and employing spotters. You would be amazed at how many people will walk up to someone running a chainsaw without considering the danger involved. Also, logs roll, snap, twist and bounce sometimes—even dry logs do. In addition, most of us are not professional sawyers—we’re lawyers, mechanics, engineers, and retirees. An extra set of eyes and hands are critical for safety. It was particularly important once additional volunteers showed up on site to split and load the firewood for delivery—there were a lot of people in a relatively small area, with lots of vehicles moving around.

We cut all day, breaking for a hot lunch again supplied by the BUMP team. It’s a luxury we don’t often get, so we really appreciated it. After lunch, another saw team showed up—this time, our neighbors from the North—Alberta, Canada rode to the rescue. And ‘rode’ is the right term—the team in question are both retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police!

The next day was quieter. The local community, after battling the snow and cold for weeks on end with no rest, took a well-deserved day off. A couple of our members had to return to their homes, but we still ran four saws most of the day. Joe, the local heavy equipment operator, stuck around to help us with his skid steer, which we appreciated—single logs are much easier to cut than a big pile.

We all left for home late that afternoon, tired and sore, but happy. Nothing feels as good as helping people who desperately need it. Did we cut all the logs they had or all the firewood they needed? Unfortunately, no. But, we did give them a good head start, and the opportunity to take a day off without feeling guilty. And even better, we now know each other, so when disaster strikes, we’ll get called. Unfortunately, with all that snow, the call may come sooner rather than later—sandbagging, anyone?

Something we say in the disaster response community is “All disasters are local.” What does that mean? It means you have to rely on yourselves first. Help may come, but it takes time. Every organization has processes meant to keep their people safe—there’s no sense in creating a disaster on your way to help someone else. The more people involved in your local community, the better off you will be in a disaster. Does your city, county, province or state have a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) organized? Are you a member of a voluntary disaster response organization? If not, please consider joining. And join now, before disaster strikes, so you’re trained and ready.

There are many organizations out there—Team Rubicon is just one, although I think we’re the coolest—everyone can help in some way. Even homebound individuals can help—Team Rubicon and many other organizations used people across the country to take calls from flooded out homeowners in Texas last fall. All they needed was a phone and an internet connection. The right organization for you is out there! Religious, non-religious, people-centered, animal-centered, building-centered, hard labor, desk work; every variation exists.

Here’s a list of national organizations: https://www.nvoad.org/voad-members/national-members/

If none of these organizations appeal to you, there are probably many smaller organizations in your area. Look them up and get involved now, before disaster strikes.