Firefighters raising money to help Oso chief shoulder his workload

OSO — The rural fire hall has returned to relative quiet these days.

The caravans of fire trucks and medic units from other departments have long since departed.

Yet there is still much to do for Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper.

Major catastrophes, he is learning, create mounds of paperwork and follow-up tasks.

For weeks, the fire hall was a hub for search and recovery efforts after a March 22 mudslide killed 43 people, erased a neighborhood and buried a mile of highway.

Harper, whose day job is doing maintenance at a local ranch, was thrust into the public eye as chief of Oso’s small volunteer fire department. He became a face and a voice for his grief-stricken community.

Harper’s boss at the ranch understood the demands on him and paid his wages and benefits even though he wasn’t able to get to work.

Though the search for bodies and belongings has been suspended, Harper, 37, remains busy with mudslide-related work. He hasn’t returned to his ranch job. There is too much paperwork to complete and too many people to look out for.

For a tiny department on a shoestring budget, getting reimbursed by the feds is critical. That requires filling out forms: lots and lots of forms.

Harper is trying to make sure his firefighters get every $5 stipend they’re entitled to for each time they answered the call during the search and recovery efforts. He must make sure everyone who volunteered is covered if medical issues arise from their time in the contaminated debris field.

There’s more cleanup to monitor, and budget worries down the road after a big chunk of the district’s tax base was lost. There also is the emotional toll — the loss of friends and family — his department endured. “We’re just keeping an eye on each other,” he said.

Firefighters from other departments saw how hard Harper worked and know his to-do list is a long one. They are trying to raise money to let him to take a year away from his ranch job to fulfill his unprecedented obligations as chief. The goal is $66,000. They’ve raised about $25,000 so far.

Harper is touched by the gesture, whether it ultimately covers a few months or the whole year.

“It’s pretty overwhelming,” Harper said. “It’s not something that our district can afford to do.”

The contributions allow him to work a regular day as chief and go home to see his wife and two young sons. Otherwise, he’d be heading to the fire hall after his day job to tackle unfinished business.

Steve Mason, a battalion chief with Snohomish County Fire District 1, was deployed to Oso the day of the slide. He worked two long stints there, at one point directing west side field operations for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team.

Mason was impressed by Harper and his crew, and by the long hours they worked. He also knew from talking to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials that the work would drag on for many months.

In Oso, “there is no city council, no mayor, just a fire station that’s the hub of the community,” Mason said. “He is the local boots-on-the-ground guy.”

Harper needs to attend meetings and bring back news and speak up for his community, Mason said. He needs to make sure that people who lost so much are treated fairly.

“It has been a full-time job,” Mason said. “Basically, he is there working for the community.”

Mason, Fire District 1 Capt. Shaughn Maxwell and Oso assistant chief Toby Hyde began devising a plan to get Harper time to do the follow-up work.

Mason and Maxwell, whose fire district covers much of south Snohomish County, want no credit.

“This is just something we wanted to do,” Mason said. “This is for that area. We all see there is a need.”

They approached the Oso fire commissioners, who passed a resolution to accept donations for the temporary post.

They made sure Harper could take a leave of absence and that his job at the ranch would be secure.

They arranged for the Fire 1 Foundation to collect donations and for Snohomish County to handle the payroll.

And they are reaching out to fellow firefighters, nonprofits, corporations and anyone else willing to contribute.

“We are talking to all kinds of people,” Mason said.

How to help

Donations can be sent to the Snohomish County Fire District 25 Fund, Fire 1 Foundation, P.O. Box 12915, Everett, WA 98206.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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