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In latest chapter of wildfire recovery, Blue River locals celebrate new fire station

This weekend, about 100 people gathered in Blue River to celebrate the grand opening and dedication of its new fire station. 

Fire crews and volunteers shared nachos and cake with locals, who also marveled at a new bright yellow fire engine and other vehicles, including a Chief’s truck and a duty vehicle. Afterwards, a series of speeches were given, recognizing the commitment of the personnel and support of various community groups. 

Outside fire station with vehicles.
Brian Bull
Several vehicles stand at the ready outside the new fire station, June 2, 2024.

The facility replaces one destroyed by the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, which burned more than 173,000 acres and leveled much of the town. Miraculously, only one person – a Vida man – died in the incident.

The Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District (UMRFPD) is now housed inside a red and gray building situated near the post office and health clinic, and close to Highway 126. It’s a state-of-the art facility made of fire-resistant materials.

Like its predecessor, it’s dedicated to the memory of Patricia “Pat” Stanley, a local community booster who died in 2000. Her daughter and Blue River resident, Melanie Stanley, was pleased with the dedication.

“She would be both embarrassed and humbled,” Stanley told KLCC. “Our mom never saw the things that she did as important as they actually were.”

Smiling fire chief.
Brian Bull
New fire chief Joel Zeni, at the grand opening event.

Another transition will be a new fire chief. 33-year-old Joel Zeni takes the reins from Christiana Rainbow Plews, who retired two weeks ago, wrapping up an eight-year career that included battling the Holiday Farm Fire. During the event, she was presented with a carved glass plaque that said “Firefighter Extraordinaire” as a farewell present. 

Plews said it’s encouraging to see new buildings emerge from what was once a charred and smoky landscape back in September 2020. She encourages her successor to be patient as he exercises leadership “and to keep a good sense of humor.” 

As for her post-retirement plans, Plews said she’ll stay active with the UMRFPD as a volunteer in good time.

“I’ve had some health struggles in the past six months, so I’m focusing on getting healthy and well, and enjoying my family,” said Plews. “I have some dogs that need attention. It’s just going with the flow right now.” 

Zeni said he’s ready to continue the tradition of Chief Plews, through community service and being diligent in keeping residents safe.

“We have a wonderful, dedicated group of volunteers that are going to continue to serve the community. And I really hope to continue to rebuild Blue River.” 

Samantha Winningham, a lieutenant with the UMRFPD, said she’s excited for Zeni’s role, and is happy to see the department rebound from the devastating wildfire. 

Smiling woman holding glass plaque.
Brian Bull
Retired fire chief Christiana Rainbow Plews holds a special gift from the community, recognizing her service.

“We are looking forward to new adventures with our new chief,” said Winningham. She added it’s healing to see people pushing forward with new growth, whether it’s foliage or new buildings. 

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for how long the process has taken, whether for commercial or residential properties," she said. "Barriers no one expected. We’re about to get into our home, it was manufactured and delivered about a year ago now. Just how it goes.” 

At the end of the day’s festivities, about a dozen fire station personnel and volunteers did a “push in” of the new fire engine. It’s a tradition that hearkens back to pre-automotive days when crews would unleash horses from the engine, and push it inside the station garage. 

Zeni cut a thin ribbon of plastic caution tape spanning the entrance, while Plews took the wheel and started the engine, placing it in neutral so the team could maneuver it inside the station. Once inside, onlookers cheered and fire personnel posed for a group photo. 

At grand opening and dedication, UMRFPD crew “push in” new engine inside new fire station

The full contingent of staff is 15 volunteers, with an Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief, and two Lieutenants. Some volunteers from out of the district come to help at times, and there are five board members.

The new station for the UMRFPD is the latest facility to be rebuilt in Blue River, with plans to have grand openings for the library and general store later this year. 

Copyright 2024, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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