Amid wildfire ruins, California Army National Guard Soldiers nurture a little tree of hope
(Photo: Army National Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cossel)

It seems appropriate that in the historical home of Luther Burbank, a luminary in California’s agriculture and horticulture history, this story should center around a tree and that this tree would become a rallying point for a neighborhood destroyed by the recent Tubbs fire.

Setting up a traffic control point blocking entrance to the Coffey Park neighborhood, three Soldiers of the California Army National Guard’s 270th Military Police Company knew their job ahead of them would be difficult. The traffic control points hadn’t been erected immediately and some residents had already ventured back to their homes to access damage, take stock of anything left behind.

That’s how Coffey Park resident Jessica Leduc knew the Muskogee Crepe Myrtle Tree planted by herself and her husband, Manny, still stood. In fact, it was the only thing left of the home purchased just over a year ago after their marriage, and it was the first thing they planted when they moved in.

“When she first approached our traffic control point, Jessica explained she had discovered the tree and was making a daily trip to water it and ensure it survived,” explained Roseville resident, 270th’s Staff Sgt. Richard Mair.

With power lines still down and the whole area a toxic hazard, Mair and his team knew they couldn’t let Jessica through.

“It was still too much of a safety risk to let people through,” Mair explained. “But we also knew we couldn’t just do nothing.”

So Mair and his team of Spc. Thomas Cox and Spc. David Lemus made a promise to Jessica — twice a day, for as long as they could, they would go to the tree, check up on it, water it and ensure it was being taken care of.

“So now before the start of our shift, we fill up a five-gallon water jug, take it out there, water the tree and send Jessica a photo of how its doing,” said Cox.

The team’s response has caused an outpouring of support as Jessica posted the story to her Facebook page.

“Richard, from the National Guard. After working an excruciatingly long shift, took his own time to make my heart feel better. He told me that as long as they are posted in Coffey Park, he and his men are going to water our little tree before and after their shifts. They believe,” part of her post read.

Having been denied access previously, in her post, Jessica noted her eyes welled up in disbelief as tears began streaming down her face as she reached out and gave Mair a huge hug.

It’s such a simple thing we can do,” said Cox. “Take a couple minutes before and after our shift to help this community moved forward. We can’t do a whole lot, but the little things we can do make a huge difference.”

As the story of the tree of hope has spread, more and more residents have approached the team at their checkpoint between San Miguel and Waltzer looking for information and taking solace in the fact that the same three Soldiers of the California National Guard are protecting what’s left of their homes.

All residents of northern California, Cox noted the personal nature of serving in the California Guard and standing duty on a traffic control point.

“These are our homes, these are our families, this is the least we can do to help,” he said.

By Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cossel, California National Guard