OSO, Wash. -- "To be honest with you it’s pretty hard coming out here," said Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper, "just the amount of life that was lost here, the families that were torn apart. It’s still pretty raw."
Three months since the Oso landslide and Chief Harper says it feels more like three years.
"My wife and I went to dinner last night and the conversation inevitably turns to the slide. You can’t get away from it."
Harper surveyed the disaster zone Thursday as work continued to clear the debris field and re-open Highway 530. Harper remains haunted by the horror of what happened here and the 43 lives lost.
"I know I’ve had my moments of puddles on the floor of tears," he said. "It’s almost a blessing to do the paperwork because being out here is hard."
The massive mudslide has turned into an avalanche of paperwork. The chief spends 50 hours a week filling out forms, working with FEMA and going to meetings. In Thursday’s pile of paperwork, however, came a surprise. He received a letter from President Obama, thanking the all volunteer force for their service.
But that was nothing compared to another note mailed to the firehouse.
Chief Harper read it aloud, his voice choked with emotion.
"We thank you. We absolutely thank you from the bottom of our hearts."
It's a thank you card from a slide survivor who lost her baby and mother in the disaster.
"This one really hits home because it’s a friend of ours," he said. "That one was hard to get this morning."
What’s also hard is just surviving.
Harper has been so busy dealing with the aftermath of the slide, he hasn’t been able to work his paying job at a local ranch. His boss has been kind enough to keep paying him, but his fellow firefighters are trying to raise enough money so he can focus on the needs of this community for an entire year and spend some precious time with his wife and two boys as well.
"I knew they were good people," Harper said. "I didn’t know how great they were and how giving."
It's a community still so broken, but also still standing - led by a humble man who is the living embodiment of "Oso Strong."
Donations for Chief Harper can be made to the "Snohomish County Fire District 25 Fund." The mailing address is: Fire 1 Foundation, P.O. Box 12915, Everett, WA 98206.