Noah Camuso I’m Noah Camuso, and this is The Ones Who Stayed.
Last September, when wildfires in Oregon burned over a million acres, I was wildland firefighting with a contract crew. I got back from a firefighting run in Idaho on September 7th, 2020, the same day that a historic wind event blew through the Pacific Northwest. The extreme winds fueled and sparked enormous fires throughout the Willamette Valley and West Cascades. The next morning, even though it wasn’t cloudy in the Willamette Valley, you could barely see the sun through all the smoke. A few days later, I joined a crew in Southern Oregon to fight the Archie Creek Fire.
While I was digging a fire line and putting embers out in Southern Oregon, the Holiday Farm Fire was burning through the Willamette National Forest. It destroyed about 173,000 acres, and burned through several towns along the Mckenzie River, a 90-mile watershed which drains a part of the West Cascades. The McKenzie flows into the Willamette just north of Eugene, where I go to school at the University of Oregon.
While I was firefighting, I knew that these fires were a big deal, but I didn’t get fully caught up until I came home. That’s when I read evacuation story after evacuation story; 40,000 people around the state evacuated their homes during the wildfires last year. A lot of people woke up with fire on their doorsteps.
To me, these life-or-death stories asked an important question, one that I wouldn’t have an answer to until I started reporting for this story. The question is this:
How, despite all the challenges the McKenzie River communities faced, was there only one death on the Holiday Farm Fire? Of course, any loss of life is a tragedy, but according to Chief Rainbow, the Upper-McKenzie Fire District Chief, a lot of firefighters and survivors expected worse.
Chief Rainbow We had lots of conversations in those first 72-hours, between the Sheriff's department and the many fire departments that were engaged, that we all just assumed we were going to find bodies.
As global temperatures rise, annual snowpack is on the decline. Most of Oregon is in a severe drought, and federal agencies are predicting another long fire year in the western United States. It’s more important than ever to take a close look at these life-or-death stories and ask the question: how should communities respond and prepare for fires, and how can they recover afterward?
These questions led me to the lives of two women in particular, survivors of The Holiday Farm Fire. I’m going to follow their paths from when the fire hit, to now. They have totally different backgrounds when it comes to wildfire, but they’ve both found similar answers.
Act I: The Night of the Fire
Noah Camuso This is Act I: The Night of the Fire. The first woman I talked to was Chief Rainbow, who you just heard from. She’s the Upper-McKenzie Fire District Chief, and she’s been in the fire service for over 30 years. In January, she took a five-week leave of absence to focus on her mental health, and I met with her in March on her first day back at work. I was greeted at the door of her fire station by an enthusiastic puppy. Here’s Chief Rainbow.
Chief Rainbow He’s very sweet. He’s been my, he has been my hero. His name is Hero.
Noah Camuso Oh, is it?
Chief Rainbow Yep, I named him Hero, and he has been my hero for sure.
Noah Camuso Is he a therapy dog, or…?
Chief Rainbow He’s training to be a therapy dog, yeah. He’s training to be my therapy dog.
Noah Camuso The other woman I talked to was Robbin Roderick. Before the fire, she was the manager of Lazy Days RV park, which is about 4 miles down the McKenzie from where the fire started. Here she is:
Robbin Roderick Never, ever did I think that was gonna happen. That was our little paradise up there. Even though it was a manufactured home park, my husband and I had a beautiful home that we owned for 16 years. I think that we had a false sense of security, and I think a lot of people did.
Noah Camuso On September 7th, 2020 the day that the Holiday Farm Fire started, Robbin was looking after her four-year-old grandson at Lazy Days RV park. The whole community was expecting a major wind event, so she wasn’t surprised when the winds pick up that afternoon, but it did make her uneasy.
Robbin Roderick I noticed a couple of tenants were walking around with the wind just going crazy and I was so upset, because I was afraid that they were going to get hurt.
Noah Camuso At the same time, Chief Rainbow was home with her husband in Vida, which is about 20 miles downriver from where the fire started. Her two sons lived next door. Around 8 pm, power goes out down the McKenzie river.
Chief Rainbow We were watching TV and the lights flickered, and then they went out and I always look at my husband whenever that happens and figure there's going to be a tap out for something. It’s usually a car accident, that hits a power pole.
Noah Camuso Around 8:20, Chief Rainbow gets a call. A brush fire was called in. It’s about a quarter mile away from Holiday Farm RV park. Chief Rainbow’s son, Haaken, told me this:
Haaken Plews She definitely, I think, had a feeling in her gut of like, "this is it." And she even left the house that night and she looked at my dad and said, "I think my worst fears are coming true." And this is something she’s talked about for forever living up here, was that if we had, you know, the perfect conditions of a hot dry summer, strong east wind and, you know, the right spark, that the... That valley would go up like a tinderbox.
Noah Camuso Chief Rainbow arrives on scene at 8:45. There are fifteen other people at the fire, and more on the way.
Chief Rainbow The fire was not significantly big when I got there, maybe less than an acre, but the wind behavior was extreme, and the fire behavior was starting to become extreme. So it was, it was really obvious early on that it was, it was going to spread rapidly.
Noah Camuso In the extreme winds, flaming debris is blowing everywhere, which is rapidly creating spot fires. From 8:45 to about 10 pm, Chief Rainbow and her personnel are focused on containing the fire to one acre and evacuating the surrounding residents. They try to engage and contain the fire, but there are active power lines in the way, and where they can engage, there aren’t enough people to make an impact.
Chief Rainbow I took all my personnel out of firefighting mode and, and put them into the use of just get, get people out safely.
Noah Camuso Four miles downriver, at Lazy Days RV park, Robbin checks a community bulletin board on Facebook.
Robbin Roderick I noticed that there was a fire that had started up river. No levels of evacuation, and so felt that we were pretty safe. Certainly there'd be a level. You know, I was being really careful about checking levels ‘cuz we had all the tenants there, I needed to worry about that. And we also had our four-year-old grandson.
Noah Camuso Ideally, first-responders would have time to order evacuations incrementally. Level one means be ready for a potential evacuation, level two means get ready to go at any minute and level three means “go now.” In a lot of cases, there isn’t time to call evacuations in steps like that. Chief Rainbow told me that first responders were ordering evacuations as quickly as they could, based on the information that they had.
A little before 11 pm, Robbin sees fire on a mountain across the riverside.
Robbin Roderick I screamed for my husband: “come look at this.” He says: “Oh. (laughs) Let’s go hook up the RV. I’m checking the levels of evacuation, still nothing. Still thinking: “Okay, we're okay.”
Noah Camuso Robbin told me that she regrets putting all of her trust in the evacuation system. She was seeing red flags, but she was still waiting for an order to start evacuating her RV park.
At 11:20 pm, a task force that Chief Rainbow called in arrives in Blue River, about seven miles downriver from Chief Rainbow’s command post at Takoda’s restaurant. She tries to tell them where to go over the radio, but they don’t know the area, and it’s too smokey to see any landmarks. Chief Rainbow decides to drive down in her truck to physically show them where to go. The drive is from Takoda’s restaurant to Blue River. This is Chief Rainbow:
Chief Rainbow So I started down, and realize that, you know, as I'm driving that the fire was moving as quickly as I could drive, on both sides of the road, and that there was kind of no end to the fire, I just kept driving and there was fire, fire, fire. The winds were probably 80 miles an hour at that time. Visibility was virtually zero because of the smoke.
Noah Camuso The fire and Chief Rainbow are both racing toward Robbin and her RV Park. It’s about 11:25 now, and Robbin gets a call from a woman that she knows.
Robbin Roderick And she screamed in the phone to get out. Now. That the fire was there. And so I hollered at Carl, my husband, grabbed the baby-- he's four, or was four at the time-- the dog and the cats and got everybody outside.
Noah Camuso While she and her husband are loading everybody up into their truck, Chief Rainbow is driving quickly along the highway without being able to see, while the fire and winds are creating hazards in the road.
Chief Rainbow And I didn't realize that a big rock slide had come down. So I had no reports that there was a road blockage and so basically hit that rock slide full on. Blew the tire on the truck. Gives me nightmares every time I go down there. Terrible feeling of not being able to see but knowing that, oh crap, I just ran over something really big.
Noah Camuso Her tire is ruined, there’s fire on either side of the highway and there’s nowhere for her to pull over. In another mile, there’s a store with a big parking lot called Christmas Treasures. Chief Rainbow starts to limp her truck along the highway, hoping she can make it to the parking lot before fire overtakes her. On her way, she calls her friend Vern, a mechanic who lives nearby. Maybe he can come up and help her change the tire. She gives him a call, but it goes to voicemail. She calls one more time, but he still doesn’t answer, so she calls her husband instead.
Chief Rainbow I said: "hey, I've got a flat tire, can you try to get ahold of Vern because I need help changing it and I'm not in a safe place."
Noah Camuso It’s about 11:30 pm. The head of the fire has passed Chief Rainbow, and now it’s minutes away from destroying Lazy Days RV park. Robbin could’ve left with her husband and four-year-old grandson, but she stays behind to make sure her tenants get out okay.
Robbin Roderick I told my husband: "Honey, you take the truck, go down to the other end of the park. Wait for me there you can start up knocking on doors, leave the baby buckled up, you start knocking on doors that way, I'll come this way and I'll meet you there. I just started beating on the walls of houses. "Get out, get out, get out, get out."
Noah Camuso Most of the tenants respond quickly, and start making their way out, but there’s an elderly couple in the park that can’t leave.
Robbin Roderick So I got to another tenant, and she's blind. And her husband has dementia, and I took her out because there was a church van. Got her out, but she was so slow, she was shuffling her feet, and the church van left without us. Embers were starting to fly through the air, and she got one on her arm, and I looked up and the tree was on fire just across the highway, right next to one of our houses that we managed, and I didn’t know what to do. She called her son who was trying to get to her, but there was a landslide upriver.
Noah Camuso While the fire is overtaking Robbin’s RV park, Chief Rainbow finally makes it to the Christmas Treasures parking lot. She stops there, hoping that her husband can get ahold of Vern. It’s about 11:35.
Chief Rainbow And then I get to Christmas treasures thinking “Oh, this is a nice wide spot, it’ll be fine,” and everything was on fire. And I thought: “Oh, this is, this is great,” like, (laughs) “I am so screwed.” Just embers flying in the air, air was hot. Smoke was, you know, you couldn't really see even across the road, and these big chunks of burning debris were in the air just everywhere. So I grabbed my emergency shelter and threw it in the cab. Because this is, this might be it, this, this could be where I, you know, end up dying in the line of duty.
Noah Camuso A fire shelter is a firefighters last resort. It’s like a tiny tent that’s designed to reduce heat if there’s no other way out.
Chief Rainbow It was either: I get out of that situation or if I stayed, or continued on down the road, I was probably going to, you know, cook in my truck.
Noah Camuso Around 11:40, Robbin’s blind tenant’s son pulls in. Robbin lets him take care of the elderly couple, hits a few last homes, and finally she’s able to leave the park with her husband and grandson. The RV is hitched to the back of their truck.
Robbin Roderick When we left there were still a few tenants getting their things out, but they said they would be leaving. We had a news car in front of us. Long line of traffic and that car slammed on his brakes out of nowhere, and he was taking video of fire in front of us, he slammed on his brakes. My husband had to swerve over to miss him. A burning utility pole came across and hit the hood of our truck, and so of course we had to stop with a wire... had the... electric cable on it, and just as he stopped, a tree fell right alongside, burning tree fell right alongside his truck.
Noah Camuso Their truck is severely damaged. Now Robbin and her husband have to face the question: is the truck even drivable anymore? Is it going to break down before they make it to a safe place? Through all of this, her four-year-old grandson is watching from the backseat.
Robbin Roderick He never cried or nothing on the way down. He was just terribly quiet. Just quiet, quiet.
Noah Camuso Around the same time, in the Christmas Treasures parking lot:
Chief Rainbow Vern and two friends of his pull up in a pickup truck, and jumped out, and changed the tire on my pickup in about two minutes flat. I didn't see him again for like two weeks to tell him “thank you for saving my life.”
Noah Camuso The fire has died down where Chief Rainbow came from, so she’s able to drive through the recently burned area to her command post.
Chief Rainbow The truck actually ended up getting wrecked later that night, totaled. Yeah, that night was rough on my truck (laughs.) The whole experience probably only lasted 20 minutes, maybe half an hour at the very most. It was one of those moments where I just wasn’t, I really wasn't sure I was gonna survive.
Noah Camuso Robbin’s husband keeps driving in the damaged truck. She pulls out her phone to record their evacuation.
Robbin Roderick We’ve got the baby, we’ve got the baby. Okay, alright, settle down Robbin, settle down. (Inaudible) trees are falling. Just go. Take it with you.
Gosh, it just seemed like it was going faster than we were going. And seriously, thought we were going to die. Thought we were going to die.
Noah Camuso The truck holds out. They make it to Springfield physically uninjured. Robbin is very shaken up, and in a state of shock, but for now, they’re alright.
Robbin Roderick We just took the truck, and it made it all the way to Springfield before it was done. So that was like a miracle. It really was a miracle.
Noah Camuso The fire is still raging west toward Chief Rainbow’s home in Vida, where her family is. In the next act, we’ll hear from Chief Rainbow’s sons about evacuating Vida, and what it was like to be a member of the community in that time. Then we’ll go back to Chief Rainbow and Robbin, and hear about how their experiences affected them emotionally in the months after the fire. This 3is The Ones Who Stayed.
Act II: Making Sense Out of the Senseless
Noah Camuso This is act II, Making Sense Out of the Senseless. I’m Noah Camuso, and I’m telling the story of two women, survivors of the Holiday Farm Fire. When I left off, Chief Rainbow had just made it back to her command post after she almost died in the fire, and Robbin had just barely made it out of the RV park that she managed in a truck with her husband and four-year-old grandson. In this act, I’ll try to answer the question: after you lose your community, your home and everything you own, how do you find hope again? Here’s the story.
As the fire rages west toward Springfield, first responders call bigger and bigger evacuation areas, until eventually they call evacuations from Mt. Hoodoo to Springfield.
As I mentioned before, a lot of people are getting out in the nick of time, like Robbin. Of course, not everybody’s evacuations were so traumatic. Some people got the notice early, and left before they ever saw flames. Among those residents, were Chief Rainbow’s sons and her husband who were living in Vida. Here’s Kiger Plews, Chief Rainbow’s older son.
Kiger Plews I think the craziest thing for me though, when I finally got on the road to evacuate was the traffic. I mean it was literally back-to-back traffic all the way to town.
Noah Camuso It’s dark and smokey, there’s ash coming down from the sky. Both of the Plews brothers told me that it that it felt “apocalyptic.” They make it to Thurston, a town near Eugene, Oregon, and they stop at an Alberton’s parking lot with a lot of members of the community. Here’s Haaken Plews, Chief Rainbow’s younger son.
Haaken Plews Cuz, you know, everyone was kind of in this state of panic and terror and just trying to survive and get things done, and then the emotional toll hit everyone kind of at the same time. “Okay, you know, our house might be fine, but we're definitely not going to be able to get back to it for some time and so we need to make arrangements for that.”
Noah Camuso Survivors are shuffling around the parking lot in whatever clothes they had on when they left. Some are barefoot, some are in their pajamas, they’re in a state of total shock. At this point, the Mt. Haagen cell tower had burned down, so survivors can’t call their loved ones. They don’t know if their family members, their friends or their neighbors made it out alive.
Kiger Plews I think the unknowing period, looking back on it was one of the more stressful and probably anxious times in my life
Noah Camuso Chief Rainbow is still fighting the fire. She and her personnel will go on to fight the fire for 56 hours straight. That’s two and a half days without a break.
Chief Rainbow During that period of time, I didn't know if my house had burned or not. I didn't know where my family was, or what the status of that, because I couldn't get, there was no cell service, there was no communication at all and so we were unsure, really of, of anything.
Noah Camuso I think nearly everyone living in the Willamette Valley remembers waking up the next morning, September 8th, 2020. You couldn’t see the sun through all the smoke, the whole sky was orange and grey. I was sent to fight the Archie Creek fire a few days after that.
While the Plews family found different places to stay around Oregon, they were left to wonder if their houses were okay or not. Remember, the brothers lived next door to their parents. Haaken was pessimistic.
Haaken Plews I'm pretty certain that our house didn't make it, or at least I have a pretty good sense that, you know, our house was in the burn zone, the chances of it surviving are probably, like, realistically 50/50, but don't get your hopes up. My dad and brother had been holding out hope. They had been really hopeful that “oh, maybe, you know, maybe our house didn't get burned down, maybe we escaped it.” And they had gotten word from someone my mom knew. They made it to the area where our house is, and they saw that a lot of the area, houses in the area were still standing. And so they told her like, "you know, it looks like a pretty good chance that your house made it."
Noah Camuso They finally got an answer on Tuesday night, the day after they evacuated. Kiger checked the community bulletin board on Facebook, and saw a video of someone going through Vida, where he and his parents lived.
Kiger Plews We're sitting in line at Walmart, and I'm watching this video. And I realize, oh my gosh, they're like, a quarter of a mile from my parent's property. I'm like: "Dad, check this out.”
Noah Camuso In researching this story, I spoke with traumatologist Dr. Schoenfeldt, who offered support for the McKenzie river communities after the fire. She told me this:
Dr. Schoenfeldt A community's resilience after a disaster is somewhat dependent on how strong they were ahead of time. So if they're a community like Blue River, like, you know, the McKenzie Bridge, if they're communities where people depend on each other anyway, we’ve already got that strength.
Noah Camuso Before the fire, this community bulletin board on Facebook was a place to sell used items, to plan events and for residents in Blue River to update each other on their lives. Scrolling through the posts before the fire and immediately afterwards, I could see this resilience at work. The bulletin board transformed, first into a series of fire warnings on September 7th, to evacuation footage and missing persons posts on the 8th, to a flood of posts like the one Kiger found, pictures and videos of what the fire had burned. The posts are full of comments, people urgently trying to figure out if their homes had burned, if their businesses were okay, and others just there to give each other emotional support.
Kiger Plews Anyway, and so they're driving and we're looking and we’re like, "Okay, so those are people like down the street, adjacent. Okay. There's, yeah, okay. That's the neighbor's house." flashback this way. "These are the people right across the street," and it flashes back and then it flashes back again and they say, "oh, there's a block in the road," and the video kind of cuts out. And we're like, “Well where was it?" And it kind of hit us like, "oh, it's gone." There's nothing there for a reason. You know, that's where the house and the property used to be."
Noah Camuso The next day, Chief Rainbow confirmed that their houses had burned from Chief Bucich, who had been her fire chief.
Chief Rainbow I really expected it to have survived so it was shocking to me that it burned and was gone. Right away I told my family… And cried a bunch. And then when I first saw it was, that was very, very hard.
I lost everything that my grandmother had ever given me. Everything my mom had ever given me. I lost all of my grandmother's china.
Noah Camuso After Chief Rainbow found out that had lost everything she owned in the fire, she got one night of sleep, then went back to work the next day. Besides firefighting and grieving, and commanding personnel, Chief Rainbow was going to community meetings and dealing with the press. Again, here’s Chief Rainbow’s son, Haaken.
Haaken Plews She was on the Drew Barrymore show, she was on CNN, she was on Fox, like she was on a lot of stuff. And I think she knew that it was all something that needed to be done. My mom is not someone that likes fame, she doesn't like recognition or people knowing who she is when she walks into a place, so I think that aspect was difficult to her.
Chief Rainbow I didn't choose to be thrown into the spotlight, but I hope that I was able to represent the first responder community in a, in a good way.
Noah Camuso She was hailed a local hero for her strength and all the work she put in for her community.
Haaken Plews My mom’s a badass, my mom is a really amazing human. But then it's also like, yeah, well, she's just my mom. Like, you know, like, she's just a person. She's goofy, she's weird, she drives me nuts sometimes."
Noah Camuso I asked Chief Rainbow what she thought about being called a hero. This is what she said.
Chief Rainbow I don't feel like I personally, was an outstanding hero. I feel like we were a heroic team. A team of heroes.
Noah Camuso One thing that Chief Rainbow and Robbin had in common was that they both took on so much work after the fire, they put off their own emotional needs.
Chief Rainbow I just kept moving forward and not, not addressing how it was affecting me.
Noah Camuso While Chief Rainbow was focused on firefighting and protecting structures, Robbin was worried about her tenants.
Robbin Roderick I put myself 100% into making sure my tenants got what they needed, you know, as far as money that I could refund to them. I totally did not put myself first at all, and pretended like that didn't even happen, and when I crashed-- when it was all over, you know I got the tenants taken care of-- I crashed really, really hard and I was down for several days.
Noah Camuso Robbin talked to me about her grieving process in those months between when the fire hit in September, to January.
Robbin Roderick My, my grief was so bad that two times specifically, I remember just falling on the floor. I don't know why, I just did, you know, and I have strong faith and I lost my faith at that point too. I really didn't think anything was ever going to be good again.
Noah Camuso Chief Rainbow finally started therapy in January, after 4 months of firefighting and living out of an RV near the station. That’s when she decided to take 5 weeks off of work.
Chief Rainbow Taking a step back, taking a break, was something I really have never done. It was actually very scary for me to do that.
Noah Camuso Robbin sought therapy around the same time, in January.
Robbin Roderick And said "I'm not getting over it." You know, I got to be able to sleep because I'm a walking zombie and this is not good for me. They diagnosed me with PTSD due to the wildfire and night terrors.
I've learned how to calm myself, like when I see smoke or smell smoke, or the wind picking up, I... I just sit down, calm myself and you know, check it out, look around you, you know, it's not, it's not a repeat of what happened. You know, I get up in the morning, some days I have to make myself. Because I still have days of being really, really sad, but I make myself on those days, no matter what. I get up, I get dressed.
Noah Camuso Robbin decided that she couldn’t move back to Blue River. The fire was just too traumatic for her. Now she has a home in Cheshire, Oregon. Survivors of the Holiday Farm Fire are scattered all over the state and beyond. Some are still living in hotel rooms and temporary housing. As for the ones who stayed on the McKenzie river: there’s a lot of comradery and hope, but also frustration. It’s important to note that everyone is affected differently by disasters, and everyone is in a different place in their healing process. That said, I asked Dr. Schoenfeldt, the traumatologist, to generalize where the McKenzie River Communities are in their healing process. This is what she said:
Dr. Schoenfeldt What I see is that they're accepting what is. So they’re not still focused on that what was, but now they’re living in the what is.
Noah Camuso After her leave of absence, Chief Rainbow is beginning to find hope again with her therapy dog named hero.
Chief Rainbow Int 3, 3:43 We're getting to the point where we're going to be talking about building our house, so that's hopeful. I don't know what it's going to look like in the future. I don't know what the community is going to look like, right now I have a sense that maybe half of the folks are going to come back successfully.
Noah Camuso There isn’t just one answer to my question: “why there weren’t more deaths on The Holiday Farm Fire?” A lot of it had to do with luck. If the fire had burned a little differently, if the winds had changed direction, if cell communication had gone out a few hours earlier, things could have been a lot worse. Part of it was the incredible efforts of the emergency responders, but even more than that, I think of the people who needed the most help evacuating, and the ones who stayed behind to help them. The way that Robbin, who had never seen a wildfire before, took it upon herself to evacuate her tenants. How Chief Rainbow knew who to call when she got a flat tire. These are remarkable stories, but they aren’t unique ones. The entire community stepped up that night, they woke up their neighbors, they changed each other’s tires, in light of the worst fire that Lane county has seen in a long time, the community stepped up and did what they had to do.
As wildfires are becoming more common and 2021 looks to be another bad fire season, we can all learn from the ways that the McKenzie River Communities responded to this disaster, and how they healed afterward. You can find resources for how to prepare your community for fire and other disasters in the links below. If you or someone you know are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human caused disaster, you can call this number: 1-800-985-5990 for immediate crisis counseling.
I’m Noah Camuso and this was: “The Ones Who Stayed.”