Holiday Farm Fire Survivors Band Together Against a Close-Call Fire off of McKenzie Highway
When a small fire started off of McKenzie Highway last month, members of the community stepped up with whatever they had to put it out. Residents are still recovering from the devastating Holiday Farm Fire.
On June 28th, Valerie J. Brooks looked out of her window to see a plume of white smoke on her property. It was a hot, dry afternoon near Blue River, Oregon.
“It was a physical and mental stab in the gut,” Brooks said. “Like this can't be happening to me, or can't be happening, period.”
Valerie is one of many survivors of The Holiday Farm Fire who is currently living with fire-related PTSD. Last September, the fire burned over 173,000 acres and several towns along the McKenzie River. Many lost their homes and barely escaped with their lives.
During the current high-risk wildfire conditions in Oregon, Valerie says many people in the McKenzie River Communities are “on edge.”
“You ask anyone up here when the wind comes up, everybody starts getting scared, just plain scared,” Brooks said. “We are still dealing with a drought. There's still a lot of green that can go.”
Around 4:45 pm that day in June , the power went out in Valerie’s area.
“My husband came up from downstairs and he said, ‘Well, the power's out,’ and I said, ‘I know,’ and then we both looked out our picture window, and there was white billowing smoke, passing the window, and we knew then that this was really close,” Brooks recalled.
Immediately, they heard shouting and screeching tires. Valerie estimates that six to ten community members barreled into her yard with their tools to help suppress the flames.
“Most of them had shovels and they were beating the fire down and it was starting to go up small trees,” Brooks said.
According to local firefighters, the fire started when the limb of a maple tree blew into the powerlines on Valerie’s property. The wind was blowing, and it spread quickly in the dry grass. While her neighbors beat the fire back, Valerie called 911.
“I had the phone in my hand and I was talking to 911 and she kept asking me, ‘How high are the flames? How high are the flames?’ And I'm going ‘I don't know how high the flames are!’ I sounded totally irrational,” Brooks said.
Within minutes, McKenzie Fire and Rescue were dispatched. This is their battalion chief and former fire chief, Dana Burwell.
“I was waiting for the call. We finally got it, it was a fire along the road, just a couple hundred yards above my house here. It was probably six minutes before McKenzie fire had a truck on scene,” Burwell said. “The remarkable thing was that during that six minutes, the neighbors came out in force, and we had a passerby stop and shoot his whole fire extinguisher off on it and then another neighbor had a big bucket of water and Hazel, and so it was pretty amazing.”
Without the effort of the community, Dana says the fire could’ve been up to four times larger, and easily could have spread to Valerie’s home. Here’s Valerie.
“If that had happened any other time… At night, when nobody was going by… Those people who put out the fire probably saved another major fire,” Brooks said. “Those are our neighbors, that’s the way this place is, you know.”
Two emergency trucks showed up to put the rest of the fire out and mop up the embers. After that, the neighbors packed up their tools and left.
“You know, you're all in that mode, emergency mode, you take care of it, and then you leave and I wish I knew who had been here,” Brooks said.
The firefight on Valerie’s property is a testament to the McKenzie River community’s ongoing strength during the 2021 fire season.
Because of current high risk fire conditions in Oregon, all outdoor burning is prohibited in Lane County. As a survivor of a historic megafire with PTSD, Valerie has this message for people who choose to have outdoor fires anyway.
“I would ask them to put themselves in the other person's shoes. The people who have lost their homes,” Brooks said. “One person lost their life up here. Is it that important to have a campfire?”
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