Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews left her Vida home last Monday night after she got a call about a brush fire and a power line down.
As she headed out about 8:30 p.m. in her yellow firefighter gear and helmet, the east wind was hollering. She knew the land was dry.
“Be safe,” her husband said.
Plews, known in town as Chief Rainbow, looked back and told him, “I think my worst nightmare is about to come true.”
She drove her Chevy half-ton fire rig as far as she could, about 20 miles east to milepost 47 of the McKenzie Highway, near the Holiday Farm RV Park.
The fire was on the south side of the highway but soon spread. While Plews was there, a report of a second fire about five miles away came in.
She quickly called for help from other crews in Lane County as her six volunteer firefighters with the Upper McKenzie Fire and Rescue rural fire district evacuated residents in the immediate area.
The initial brush fire now had jumped to both sides of the highway. “It was ripping down the valley,” she said.
By 1 a.m. Tuesday, Plews ordered the evacuation of Blue River, Vida, Nimrod and Leaburg along a 20-mile stretch of the McKenzie River east of Eugene-Springfield. She also had called it in as a conflagration and demanded statewide help, not knowing wildfires in other parts of Oregon were raging as well.
The chief reached one of her sons on his cellphone when she couldn’t get through to her husband Eric Plews: “Get in your car and get out of there,” she directed.
By Sunday, fire officials said the Holiday Farm fire had scorched 161,872 acres and reported it was 5% contained.
While Chief Plews remained with her crew and tried to alert area residents to leave, her husband and two sons who live in adjacent homes pounded on the doors of their neighbors, yelling, “We got to get out!”
Eric Plews grabbed his and his wife’s medications, his CPAP machine for sleep apnea and a change of clothes before rounding up their three dogs and leaving. The couple’s sons packed a few family heirlooms — including their parents’ wedding photo and a grandfather’s American flag from World War II — and drove off.
They didn’t hear from Christiana Plews until another 24 hours.
“We were just running and gunning and doing everything we could, but it was against all odds,” Plews said. “We couldn’t get anywhere. The trees were down. The fire was everywhere.”
Plews, 50, was monitoring radio traffic and knew the fire had spread fast but was hopeful her house was still standing. It wasn’t until about 10 p.m. Tuesday, when she was at a fire incident command center at Thurston Middle School in Springfield, that she learned otherwise. A fellow fire chief from a nearby fire district broke the news.
“My first thought was, ‘How do I tell my family?’ I didn’t know where my family was,” she said.
Plews was confident that she had given them time to flee to safety and trusted that they had heeded her advice.
The chief called her husband, by then settled in a hotel with his sons in Cottage Grove.
Devastated and in tears, she told him: “I’m really sorry everything is gone.”
Eric Plews couldn’t keep from crying himself. “We literally lost everything. We had two houses there. They’re just gone.”
But he told his wife: “We’re all safe. You’ve got to stay safe. We’ll rebuild.
Chief Plews remained on the firefighting line, finally driving to her property Wednesday afternoon. Everything was charred rubble except for a concrete shell standing from the canning room in their 1,200-square-foot, single-level house.
“I threw up. I was sobbing. I was looking at nothing,” she recalled. “It was the same devastation I had seen all the way down the river, except that was mine. I just don’t know how to process that. Where do I go from here? What’s next? And, how do I do that when I’m also trying to put a community back together?”
Four other volunteer firefighters in her crew also kept working after they knew they had lost their homes, she said.
She credits their fire training that instinctively kicks in for helping them move forward despite the heart ache.
“It’s really hard to be strong when you’re broken,” Plews said. “But when those four volunteers of mine stood by me those first few days and knew in their hearts that they had lost everything and continued to put water on fire, it’s really superhuman. To see them continuing on gave me strength because I didn’t know where my strength was going to come from.”
Plews kept going until about 10 p.m. Wednesday, when her husband and sons picked her up at the command center in Springfield. They took her back to their hotel. They found a laundromat to wash her firefighting gear as she slept.
She was back at it Thursday. By Sunday, fire officials said the Holiday Farm fire had scorched 161,872 acres and reported it was 5% contained. The district’s backup fire station in Blue River, which was recently remodeled, has been reduced to a pile of ashes.
One person died in Vida. The chief expects more will be discovered.
“I know there has been loss of life. I think the darker days are coming. I did everything I could to get everyone out,” she said, her voice catching, “and I know I didn’t get everybody out.”
Plews told her family, “It’s really tough to fight a fire with a broken heart.”
She decided to become a volunteer firefighter in 1991after she had her first son and was looking to do something outside of the house. After a knee injury, she worked as an emergency room technician at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield and at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center in Florence. When the chief’s position became open, she put in for it and got the job in October 2018. It’s considered a three-quarter-time paid position.
Last Wednesday night, Plews stopped by the McKenzie Fire station to grab some supplies. There, she noticed a fledgling Western grebe – a type of water bird – near her Chevy rig, flopping around on the ground. “Rainbow didn’t stop until she caught this little sucker and placed him back in the river. I watched this woman in awe. Soot-covered, exhausted, tapped out and hurting. She held a tiny creature in her arms because that’s the kind of incredible human she is,” her friend Laura Cherry wrote on her Facebook page afterward.
“Rainbow made the call to raise the evacuation level early so that the citizens in her jurisdiction had time to get out safely,” said Laura Cherry, an EMT with the nearby McKenzie Fire District, and a good friend. “Rainbow is a full blown, grassroots, salt-of-the-earth hero.”
Last Wednesday night, Plews stopped by Cherry’s fire station to grab some supplies. There, she noticed a fledgling Western grebe – a type of water bird – near her Chevy rig, flopping around on the ground, according to Cherry and the chief.
“Rainbow didn’t stop until she caught this little sucker and placed him back in the river. I watched this woman in awe. Soot-covered, exhausted, tapped out and hurting. She held a tiny creature in her arms because that’s the kind of incredible human she is,” Cherry wrote on her Facebook page afterward, and posted a video of the bird being returned to the river.
Plews called it “just a moment of hope – something beautiful in all of this (expletive) mess.”
A high school friend started a gofundme page for the chief.
Darlene Lambert Netzer donated money. She wrote, “Chief Rainbow and other volunteer firefighters saved my brother’s life and all his livestock on Tuesday morning when wildfires raged through the McKenzie River Valley. But she and others all lost their own homes while they worked to help evacuate others. If anyone deserves our help, it’s Chief Rainbow.”
Eric Plews, who works as a sales representative for State Farm Insurance, said he filed a claim for their homes.
“Until you actually have that happen to you, you don’t know how that process works,” he said.
The insurer has put the family up in two rooms in a hotel in downtown Eugene.
“I make lists for every day and try to get those things done for that day and try not to think about the long term,” Eric Plews said.
“When you realize everything you’ve worked for your whole life is gone, it’s pretty daunting.”
Chief Plews said she always promised herself that she would mark Sept. 11 as a memorial to the firefighters who sacrificed their lives that day in 2001. This year, the day nearly passed without her paying tribute.
“I didn’t even know what day it was. When I realized it, I just broke down,” she said. “I was never supposed to forget Sept. 11. How did they put it all back together? I don’t know but they did, and we can.”
The chief said she’s unsure what’s next. The last two days, she just wanted to make sure her firefighters got time to spend with their families.
She said she’s also thankful for the community’s remarkable generosity in this difficult time. Without any change of clothes, she mentioned she needed underwear and said she now has some 700 new pieces of underwear.
On Sunday afternoon, Plews wrote a message on her fire district’s Facebook page.
“I do not know what the future holds or how to navigate this but I am taking one tiny shaking uncertain step at a time and I ask only that you all do the same,” she wrote. “Be patient. Be kind. Hold the ones you love. We have to do this together.”
Towards the end she wrote: “We will come out the other side stronger and more resilient. We have all that matters. We have each other. “