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'What Destruction Feels Like:' PTSD Takes Heavy Toll On First Responders

Christiana Rainbow Plews

During last fall’s devastating wildfires, Oregon firefighters were on the front lines-- and the public was grateful. But the job takes a toll. The Institute of American Firefighters finds up to 37% of first responders meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. KLCC has this story of a Lane County Fire Chief who recognized her distress and had the courage to ask for help.

Credit Christiana Rainbow Plews
Chief Rainbow Plews stands before her smoldering fire station in Blue River.

Credit Christiana Rainbow Plews
Ash and debris is all that remained of her home. Chief Rainbow sits with her beloved dog Chi-Chi in the aftermath of the Holiday Farm fire.

Christiana Rainbow Plews has been fighting fires for 30 years. 

“My very first fire chief used to tell me, when I would get frustrated--he would say, ‘Suck it up, Princess.’ And that’s always been my mantra, suck it up princess, just keep going,” she said. 

In 2018, Plews became Chief of the Upper McKenzie Fire District. Chief Rainbow, as she’s called, was on the front lines of the disastrous Holiday Farm fire. The experience was traumatizing.

Credit Christiana Rainbow Plews
Rainbow Plews has been an emergency medic and fire fighter for 30 years. She says she has experienced many traumatic events in her career, including catastrophic fires, drownings on the McKenzie River and the deaths of children.

“That initial sight --of everything gone. I had been seeing it for days all along the river. All my friends’ homes and familiar landmarks,” Plews said. “And I knew what that destruction looked like—but I didn’t know what it felt like.”

Until she got down river to where her family’s homes once stood in Vida, Ore. 

“It’s pretty overwhelming to pull into your driveway and there’s nothing recognizable. Because it’s all gone,” she said.

Plews did not take a break here. She knows she should have but—in her head there was still so much to do. “My volunteers who had lost everything, they were shattered,” she said. 

Credit Christiana Rainbow Plews
Chief Rainbow is often hailed a hero on social media posts for her early and total evacuation of the McKenzie River corridor as the Holiday Farm fire blew out of control.

Plews felt the heavy weight of responsibility, during the fire and afterwards. And there was guilt. 

“One of the things that she’s voiced to me is that she wasn’t there that night when we evacuated.” 

That's Eric Plews. He's has been married to the chief for 34 years. They have two sons. The whole family understands that her life is constantly at risk.

The night of the Holiday Farm fire, Plews hit a fallen boulder on the dark highway near Blue River. Stranded, with fire all around her, she called her husband.

Eric recalls, “Here’s the way she says it, she says ‘Hey, I got a flat fire up here and I need Vern to help get it fixed.’ And there was no panic." 

Turns out that incident was one of three times in her career that Plews thought she would die in the line of duty. 

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Christiana Rainbow and Eric Plews have been married for 34 years. They both say their partnership has helped them through trauma. 

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a shocking or terrifying event. Symptoms vary. Some people experience changes in mood—from rage to tearful depression. Some have nightmares or flashbacks. There can be isolation, irrational fear, suicidal ideation. Specialists say the key is recognizing something is wrong and getting help. 

But that’s not easy.

“When you look at professions that are really about pushing through pain like firefighters and police officers, there can be some huge stigma around admitting that you have some issues around Post Traumatic Stress or depression.”

Dr. Shin Shin Tang is a licensed psychologist with Oregon Mind Body Institute. She’s seen what unaddressed trauma can do.  

Credit Mason Bleazard
Dr. Shin Shin Tang is Clinical Director at Oregon Mind Body Institute. She specializes in trauma therapy.

“Kind of like shaking a COKE bottle. Ya know? And then the lid just flips off and it explodes,” said Tang.

Five months after the Holiday Farm fire, Plews told her crew she is taking a leave of absence. She’s been diagnosed with severe cumulative PTSD and she’s in therapy. The Chief says that mantra isn’t working.  'Suck it up,' is no longer an option. 

Through tears, Plews said, “People have to respect that unless you stop for a while and regroup and heal, you won’t be any good to anyone anymore.” 

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Chief Rainbow Plews requested and received a leave of absence from her McKenzie Fire District leadership post. She would return her rig to the fire department station a day after this photo was taken.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
29 year old Sean Spradlin is a volunteer fire fighter who lost his home while fighting the Holiday Farm fire. He now lives in an RV in McKenzie Bridge area, works a full time job and remains a part of the fire crew. Spradlin says, no matter what he experienced, he intends to continue serving and training with plans for EMT certification. 

At the fire station at McKenzie Bridge, the volunteer crews are bringing engines back in after a fire drill. They received her announcement with understanding. Forest Service veteran Dirk Rogers has agreed to be acting-Chief.

“There’s some struggles that she is trying to deal with and I support her 100%,” said Rogers. “And I’ll be honest with you, that’s a struggle for a lot of the fire fighters. Everybody handles this a little bit different. Some people have had some rough goes.”

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Dirk Rogers has decades with Forest Service under his belt and now will step in as acting-Chief for Upper McKenzie Rural Fire District. Former Chief Norm Michaels will also assist during Plews' leave.

Trauma specialist Dr. Tang says it’s important to acknowledge that our heroes are hurting and we owe them respect when they ask for help--like Plews did. “I think that is so brave. Especially in that culture and that environment, it’s such an act of courage,” said Tang.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Upper McKenzie Rural Fire District volunteers meet at the fire station in McKenzie Bridge since their station house in Blue River burned down during the Holiday Farm fire on Labor Day, 2020.

Chief Rainbow Plews says she will be back on the job she loves—but only after her head and heart have healed.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Chief Rainbow Plews says she is holding on to heal through the trauma.

For  information on trauma therapy and mental health support services, The Community Counseling Center provides sliding scale counseling services and offers referrals. 

Lane County Public Health offers mental health services. 

National Center for PTSD, Veterans Affairs provides referal services for treatment.

The Primary Care PTSD Screen for DSM-5 (PC-PTSD-5) is a 5-item screen designed to identify individuals with probable PTSD. Those screening positive require further assessment, preferably with a structured interview.View screening here

How Mental Health Stigma Impacts The Fire Service, read here

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in a variety of media including television, technical writing, photography and daily print news before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
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