From left, fire Capt. Tim Harper, firefighters Cyndy Olson and Cindy Reynolds, chaplain Joel Johnson and firefighter Bill Reynolds at the Oso fire station on Tuesday, Feb. 21. Harper, Olson, Johnson and the Reynoldses managed the $500,606 in donations that came in after the 2014 mudslide. (Daniella Beccaria / The Herald)

Oso firefighters made sure mudslide fund went where it was needed

OSO — Cindy Reynolds knows the number by heart.

Her friends at the Oso fire department always double-check with her, but they remember, too.

The $500,606 kept them up at night and away from family dinners and kids’ baseball games. Reynolds was part of a group of Oso firefighters who oversaw the donations that arrived at the fire station after the 2014 mudslide.

March 22, the three-year mark, is approaching, and the group recently finished distributing the money. They felt a responsibility to do right by the people who had lost so much. Some of the families most affected had been part of their lives long before the slide, fire Capt. Tim Harper said.

“I wanted to make sure every penny went to people who deserved it,” he said. “… Being a small town, we knew everybody.”

The fire station is just four miles west of where the hillside collapsed on Steelhead Drive and Highway 530. Around here, long after the world’s attention has drifted from Oso, the mudslide is referred to as “the event that we had.”

The station became a hub of activity after the disaster. Donations came from around the globe, some mailed and some hand-delivered. Unless the money was clearly marked for fire department use, it went into the bank, along with proceeds from local fundraisers. The families were in shock. The firefighters themselves were being warned not to make major decisions right away. It took time to understand how lives had been changed.

“We knew we would be the ones to help provide longer-term care,” said Joel Johnson, a volunteer firefighter and chaplain. “We wanted people to be able to get resettled, to see what their lives were going to look like.”

For the nonprofit Oso Firefighters Association, half a million dollars was a lot to consider. That’s about 50 times its community service budget, most of which comes from the annual salmon bake. Those in charge of the donation fund were Harper, Johnson, Cindy Reynolds and her husband, Bill, and Cyndy Olson. They’ve been told they volunteered, but they don’t all remember raising their hands.

Starting in the fall of 2014, they got together every week for about a year, often before and after their firefighting drills. From the beginning, they wanted to make sure the money was tracked and monitored, and that survivors’ privacy was protected. They identified 34 families who had lost loved ones, suffered injuries or sustained damage to their full-time homes. The needs included furniture and appliances, clothing, rent, vehicles and transportation, medical bills and school tuition and books.

The donations went “all the way down to socks,” Harper said.

“If it fell within the guidelines, we just told them yes,” Cindy Reynolds said.

Their efforts happened in concert with those of the Long Term Recovery Group: a collection of nonprofits, churches and others that have taken turns organizing and filling requests from families. Another key partner was Peggy Ray, the lead advocate for survivors at the Arlington Community Resource Center. She has that rare skill of sorting out what’s urgent and then getting it done quickly.

The requests have dwindled with time, said Johnson, who also was part of the Recovery Group. “It means we helped serve our purpose,” he said.

The firefighters association often received steep discounts when local businesses learned where the items were going. Cindy Reynolds delivered a lot of the checks on her own time.

In January, the account balance hit zero. The last payment was made to a survivor who for years respectfully declined their offers. It was the first and only time that person drew on the fund.

In that case and others, the firefighters relied on personal ties to connect with those who weren’t looking for assistance. One family replaced their possessions soon after the slide, and other charities turned them down for reimbursement, Harper said. The firefighters found a way to help.

These days, the five of them share a sense of relief. They honored the intent behind that $500,606, Olson said. When they went home after meetings, the number stayed in their minds. It was yet another reminder of everything they and others in Oso have been through since March 22, 2014.

“Our thoughts were still with this,” Olson said. “They still are.”

Drill nights won’t be so long anymore. They also don’t care if they ever eat another granola bar for dinner again or hear a cellphone buzz from a group text message.

They are grateful to their families, who understood why they needed to continue to serve, and for all the support from the greater Oso community. In their eyes, that now includes people from around the world.

The zero balance marked another step toward rebuilding.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

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