As It Happens

Fire chief learns her own home razed while fighting Oregon wildfire

Christiana Rainbow Plews, known as Chief Rainbow in her small community east of Eugene, Oregon, learned while fighting the biggest blaze of her career last week that her own home had been swallowed by its flames.

Christiana Rainbow Plews says nothing is left standing apart from one concrete room

Two homes on the property owned by Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews were razed in the Holiday Farm Fire, leaving only the concrete canning room seen here standing. (Submitted by Christiana Plews)
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Transcript

A fire chief in rural Oregon learned while fighting the biggest blaze of her career last week that her own home had been destroyed by its flames.

Christiana Rainbow Plews, known as Chief Rainbow in her small community in Upper McKenzie, east of Eugene, told As It Happens host Carol Off that her team of mostly volunteer firefighters was called September 7 to what was initially a small brush fire started when a power line went down.

But by the next evening she'd learn that the two houses on her own property — including the one where she lived with her husband, Eric — were burned to the ground, leaving only a concrete canning room standing amid the ash and rubble. Her fire station also burned down, as did the homes of many of her volunteers.

As she was doing her initial assessment of what has since come to be known as the Holiday Farm Fire, its treetop flames jumped the highway and began burning on the other side, next to where Plews was standing.

I did find a couple of my chickens that had survived... And initially I was able to find our pet goat... So I did find those little bits of hope and, yeah, there's just nothing left.- Christiana Rainbow Plews

"I knew right away that it was getting bigger than what we had people and equipment to handle," said Plews, who immediately called for backup from fire battalions elsewhere in the county.

"I have seen blazes like this in California and in eastern Oregon, very similar wind-whipped fires that travel faster than you can imagine and cause destruction of an unimaginable level."

Firefighters work to break up the remnants of a man-made fire break near Leaburg, Ore., Thursday, Sept., 10, 2020, where a dearth of resources hampered the fight against the Holiday Farm Fire. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard)

The Holiday Farm Fire has now burned more than 67,000 hectares of land.

'Terrifying to breathe'

The crews worked amid a roar of gusting wind, crackling flames and snapping tree branches, the air filled not just with smoke but with burning detritus of the fire, she said. 

"This is sort of terrifying to breathe because there's large chunks of burning stuff flying in the smoke. Everything is on fire from from the ground to the tops of the trees. And it's just hot and windy and smoky and black."

The fire's movements were nearly impossible to track.

"This whirling kind of fire tornado scenario … just picks up and moves it maybe 200 feet or two miles, you know, you can't really tell in the darkness. You can just hear it and feel it all around you," she said.

Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews holds a fledgling Western grebe she found in the wake of the Holiday Farm Fire, which has ravaged more than 67,000 hectates of land in Oregon. (Laura Cherry/Facebook)

Both volunteers and the backup crews worked not just to control the spread but to alert residents.

"It's, you know, eight or nine or ten o'clock at night. These folks are home in bed. And the power had been out for quite some time before the fire started. So I'm sure and most of them didn't have cell phones on," she said.

"So we were … going door to door, you know, yelling and and running sirens, trying to get people out." 

Though Plews made the call early to send an alert through the local emergency management system, at least one fatality has been confirmed. "I wish I could say that everyone got out safely. I know that not everyone was able to get out. I know there's loss of life and that's heavy on my heart."

Record number of wildfires

Forests in Oregon have burned at unprecedented levels this past week. Almost the same number of "megafires" — defined as having scorched 100,000 acres [about 40,000 hectares] or more — burned over the week as have occurred during the entire last century, said Jim Gersbach, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Gov. Kate Brown said more than 200,000 hectares typically burn each year, but flames have swallowed twice that amount in the past week. Long-term droughts and wild recent weather swings have worsened conditions.

Altogether the West Coast wildfires in Oregon, as well as neighbouring California and Washington, have killed at least 35 people, destroyed neighbourhoods and enveloped the region, including some parts of Canada, in smoke.

It wasn't until Wednesday that Plews had the opportunity to leave her post long enough to survey the damage on her own property.

"Both of the homes on my property were completely levelled," she said, along with them sentimental items including her grandfather's Second World War uniform and her grandmother's china.

"I did find a couple of my chickens that had survived, that had been left on the property. And initially I was able to find our pet goat. But she's since, I think, taken up refuge at a different neighbour's house that still has a porch and a green lawn. So I did find those little bits of hope and, yeah, there's just nothing left."


Written by Brandie Weikle with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.

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