'World, Meet Rainbow': The Female Fire Chief On The McKenzie Hailed A Hero

Sep 18, 2020

Christiana Rainbow Plews has been making national headlines of late. She’s the Upper McKenzie District Fire Chief who lost her home and fire station in the Holiday Farm fire. 

Plews is one of fewer than 50 women in the nation to hold the title of fire chief. She’s been credited for saving lives when ordering “Get Out Now” evacuations for most of the McKenzie River Valley, when the fire blew up on Labor Day.

Chief Rainbow Plews has been a firefighter for 30 years. She was a first responder on the Holiday Farm fire which broke out on Labor Day. The Chief and her family lost their homes as she and Upper McKenzie Fire District crews fought the historic conflagration.
Credit Christiana Rainbow Plews

“World, meet Rainbow.” That introduction begins one of thousands of social media posts, piling on accolades for the rural fire chief on the McKenzie River. When she took the leadership post in October 2018, she said there was some administrative pushback about using her middle name.

“That’s career suicide,” said Plews. “And I was like, ‘Yea, but I am Rainbow. Everybody knows me as Rainbow. Like, that’s my name that I go by.’ And I was told that was just completely unreasonable. And so I was kinda like, ‘Yea, whatever.’”

Chief Rainbow has been in the firefighting business for 30 years. She’s had to navigate her career with very few woman mentors.

It was around 8:30 pm Labor Day when Chief Rainbow got a call on a small grass fire at the Holiday Farm RV park near Blue River.  She put on her boots and wildland gear and hit the door. The first thing she noticed was the whipping wind.

“I just had a really sinking, gut feeling this was going to be something much bigger than what we got tapped out for,” she said.

The Holiday Farm fire, which started as less than a tenth of an acre, soon grew uncontrollable when those historic, high winds blew the burn across the highway and toward houses.

Chief Rainbow "followed her dreams" to become one of a small number of female fire chiefs in the United States.
Credit Christiana Rainbow Plews

“At the time I was basing all my efforts and my decision-making on muscle memory.”

Chief Rainbow called for a “quick battalion” of neighboring crews to help fight the growing blaze.  

“Shortly after that, I called for evacuations,” said the Chief. “We were just driving our trucks and running our sirens and knocking on doors personally. We got a lot of people out.”

She said she remained on the fire for 56 hours before she collapsed. Looking back- Chief Rainbow said she knew her team was taking the right steps-- requesting backup, plucking residents from danger.

“I was not scared until I got a flat tire and was stranded in my truck and fire was everywhere around me,” she said. “Then I got scared.”

Plews had hit a fallen boulder. She was stranded alone on a stretch of Highway 126 beside the local landmark- Christmas Treasures. She called her husband for help, without knowing if he could. Then she prepared for the worst. Chief Rainbow held her protective fire shelter in her hands, ready to deploy.

“And our friend Vern who runs a tow truck company, literally appeared out of the darkness with a couple of friends and changed my tire and disappeared,” she recounts.

The Chief turned from the inferno and headed back upriver. Soon Christmas Treasures, like everything else on that swath of the highway, was burned beyond recognition.

Credit Andy Nelson-Register Guard/Pool

Chief Rainbow and her family live in the tiny town of Vida on the McKenzie River. About 24 hours after the fire broke out- Plews learned her house and her sons’ house were gone. So was the town of Blue River and her fire station there. As well as the homes of many crew members. 

With barely time to grieve, Plews was back in.

Chief Rainbow isn’t one to toot her own siren. In fact, she gives it all up to her team of volunteer firefighters and the area crews that continue to fight the Holiday Farm fire.

Credit Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District

(U.S. Forest Service, McKenzie Bridge Forest Station, Oregon Department of Forestry stationed at Nimrod, fire crews from McKenzie, Mohawk and Pleasant Hill and others.)

A social media scan of the “Blue River Bulletin” Facebook page reveals some ire over the lack of decent alert systems in the remote river communities. And an overwhelming number of posts display adoration for Chief Rainbow.

One says, “She is the first person I talked to when I saw the road closed and had no idea what was happening. She patiently… told me to get out. Thank you, Chief Rainbow.”

Another reads: “We lost our home but we’re alive. You saved a lot of us.”

And this one: “You make me proud –as a woman.”

As Chief Rainbow was getting out of her rig after a fire, she found a little fledgling grebe, like a baby duckling. She saw the moment and picked it up and took it down to the river and made sure that it was saved.
Credit Facebook/Laura Cherry

As the devastation of the Holiday Farm fire was realized, fundraising campaigns kicked in for displaced evacuees and firefighters. Wren Arrington, with Eugene’s White Bird Clinic, started one of them. He’s known the Chief for 10 years.

White Bird Clinic's Wren Arrington has known Chief Rainbow for a decade. He started a Go Fund Me campaign to help her rebuild after losing her home in the Holiday Farm fire.
Credit Tiffany Eckert

“Rainbow has a way of being sassy, and brash and outspoken and at the same time humble and kind,” he said.

A few days off the Holiday Farm fire line, Plews talked to Arrington.

“One of the first things she said to me was ‘I feel broken. I don’t know how to keep on doing this.’ And all I could tell her is that ‘you are doing it. You’re getting up and doing it every day. And you’re doing a good job,” said Arrington.

The Plews family on the McKenzie River.
Credit Plews family

At a wildfire briefing this week, Oregon Governor Kate Brown ended with this praise.

“Through it all, Chief Rainbow and her team have stayed on the frontlines of the fire, protecting the homes and the lives of as many Oregonians as possible,” the Governor said. “She and her team remind us of why we love this state. We care for each other, no matter what. Thank you, Chief Rainbow.”

It has been said, the same goes for a battered, burned but grateful McKenzie River community.