A rural fire chief and several of her volunteer firefighters in Oregon lost their homes and station house to the Holiday Farm Fire as they battled the blaze over the last few days.
Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews is among thousands of first responders who have been combating the fires that have ravaged the West Coast for weeks. She got a call Monday night about a downed power line, and the resulting brush fire spread faster than anything she had ever seen.
Within an hour or two of having left her home to respond, Plews said, she had issued a level 3 evacuation order — for residents to leave immediately — for the McKenzie River area in Lane County in western Oregon. Her family left their home about 20 miles downriver from the fire’s origins, able to bring a few of the animals on their property.
The next evening, a neighboring fire chief told Plews that crews had done everything they could but that her home was gone.
“I not only have my life to put back together, I also have a fire department to put back together,” Plews said. “And I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do that.”
Plews said she was awake for about 56 hours, with many of her crew members going even longer. The team battled the flames from Monday night until Thursday or Friday before returning Saturday, and the majority were given a 24-hour rest period by Sunday, Plews said.
“I am all up and down and inside out,” Plews said Sunday. “At this point in time, I’m tired, and it’s really minute to minute. I’m really good one minute and hopeful, and then the next minute I just can’t do it. I’m lost.”
Career firefighters from the Eugene-Springfield area were able to offer mutual aid, Plews said, a blessing with so many of the state’s resources drained by the dozens of fires in Oregon. The fight against the Holiday Farm Fire is still in its early days, and Plews expects the struggle to stretch for quite some time. Most of the area’s residents have been displaced and are eager to return home, she said.
Plews expects that people might be angry, but with active fires on both sides of the road and unstable timber all around, it’s unclear when anyone will be able to return to see what’s left of their lives.
“We cannot afford to have people go back to the homes that are there and then have to respond to that,” Plews said. “We literally don’t have the people to respond to that.”
The fire department’s Blue River station is destroyed, its equipment is burned, and a number of the crew members have lost their homes and livelihoods in the past week. Almost all of them have been able to reunite with their loved ones in safe locations, although a few have stayed at the department’s surviving station to keep fighting.
Except for Plews, every firefighter on the team is a volunteer who adds the dangerous work to an already bustling life. Samantha Winningham, a lieutenant with the Upper McKenzie crew, is one of those volunteers.
Winningham helps run her family’s business, Meyer’s General Store, in Blue River, where she has lived her entire life and where she and her husband are raising a 4-year-old daughter. Their home was just a block from her mother’s in one direction. A few blocks in another direction, her aunt lived next to the store
Now all those homes are gone, along with the garden she’d been working on in her spare time and the album she kept on the bottom of a bookshelf with her grandparents’ photographs.
“Literally the whole town of Blue River is totally leveled, so three of our houses and our business, the fire station, the post office, the local clinic,” Winningham said. “And we’re in a really small community, so a lot of our close family friends [lost their homes], too. It’s all gone.”
The family of about 16 are together in a hotel in Eugene, where nearly the entire town of Blue River is staying.
Winningham’s husband was pulling dinner out of the oven just as the calls came in about downed power lines Monday night. She left her home that night and hasn’t been able to return since.
She and the rest of the crew went door to door to evacuate families, dealing with heavy winds that sent embers that forced them to hide behind their equipment. All the while, there was barely any cell reception, making it difficult to even know how their loved ones were doing.
Winningham said she left the fight Wednesday to reunite with her family after she realized she was no longer able to work effectively with the worry for her loved ones on her mind.
“I was fighting a battle that I wasn’t winning. Everything was just getting worse, and I wasn’t at home able to help my family be safe, either,” she said.
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In the days she has been able to spend with her family and almost everyone in their small town who has been displaced, Winningham said, she has been able to find some hope that Blue River will rebuild better than it was before.
“Everyone in our town made it out and alive and safe,” she said. “As helpless as we feel as a department, we might not have been able to save the structures, but we were able to save the people. So at least we have that.”
At least two GoFundMes were created to raise money for the chief on Friday, collectively gathering more than $40,000 for Plews and the department.
“Rainbow made the call to raise the evacuation level early so that the citizens in her jurisdiction had time to get out safely,” one of the fundraising organizers, Wren Arrington, said in the GoFundMe description. “Rainbow is a full blown, grass roots, salt-of-the-earth hero.”
Donations are also coming in for the displaced Lane County residents, people who need clothes and toiletries, Plews said. Although there have been some difficulties in getting everyone what they need in the turmoil of the last several days, Plews said, the community response has been overwhelming.
“I know these long-term events, and there’s that period in the beginning where everyone is there for everyone else, piles of donations, and there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty but also a lot of hope,” Plews said.
The Holiday Farm Fire, which was only 5 percent contained Sunday, had scorched 161,872 acres, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s incident information system.
Andrew Phelps, Oregon’s emergency management director, said in an interview with MSNBC that the state was preparing for a “mass fatality incident.”
“There are going to be a number of fatalities, folks who just couldn’t get warning in time and evacuate their homes and get to safety,” Phelps said Friday.
At least 33 people have died in the dozens of fires along the West Coast, with dozens more missing and thousands of others displaced. Oregon’s state data showed Sunday that 35 fires have devastated 902,620 acres.