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Families, animals displaced by Chetco Bar Fire

BROOKINGS -- While thousands along the South Coast watched the solar eclipse Monday morning, that event was the last thing on the minds of many residents in the Brookings area, who frantically gathered their belongings to leave their homes Sunday morning as the Chetco Bar Fire grew at an astonishingly rate Saturday afternoon, prompting level three evacuation orders from the Curry County Sheriff's Office. 

The immediate evacuation was announced after the fire grew by more than 40,000 acres in two days, fueled by high winds and heat, termed the "Chetco effect" by area incident commanders. The fire has now burned 91,551 acres and is not contained, officials said.

Three homes have been destroyed by the fire on Cate Road but no injuries have been reported. 

Level three evacuation orders were issued to residents in the areas from Pistol River south and east, including and down to the intersection of Carpenterville Road and U.S. Highway 101. The area includes Cape Ferrelo and the South Pistol River area. Also, residents have been evacuated from the area of North Bank Chetco River Road, from Da-Tone Rock upriver to Wilderness Retreat and on the South Bank Chetco River, upriver from Shady Lane. Areas north of the Pistol River are not currently affected by the fire.

A level three evacuation notice means that residents must leave the area immediately, a terrifying thought for many.

Residents who had no where else to go were told they could stay at an emergency shelter set up by the American Red Cross at Brookings-Harbor High School. On Sunday, that shelter was moved 30 miles to the north on Highway 101 to Riley Creek Elementary School in Gold Beach.

Officials spoke to the press at 1 p.m. Monday, and at 3:30 p.m. to about 80 displaced residents who were staying at or near the Riley Creek school. A overflowing community meeting was held again at 6 p.m. at Azalea Middle School in Brookings.

"We made decisions with your lives and property in mind," said Capt. Mike Espinoza of the Curry County Sheriff's Office at the Riley Creek meeting.

Espinoza said officials had to make decisions rapidly because the Chetco winds were moving up the river's corridor. A level three evacuation was issued Friday for the upper river, but the lower river was still at a level two alert.

"On Saturday, that changed rapidly," Espinoza said. "We set up shelters at Brookings-Harbor High School but our agency was tapped. I had all of my people helping, then the fire behavior changed, based on specific conditions to this area. We understood clearly the impact of having to make decisions on the fly." 

Over 72 hours, officials notified two large communities on the outskirts of Brookings. Mark Regan, public information officer for the fire incident command team said there are 3,300 structures in the evacuation areas, which includes homes, outbuildings and multi-unit RV parks, but he wasn't able to give an exact number of residents who have had to leave their homes. Some are staying at the Red Cross shelter, while others are in RVs and campers or with family and friends.

"We had 700 residents who were evacuated on Friday and then more (in a larger area) on Sunday," Regan said. "It's a good chunk of people."

Over the weekend, additional resources were sought and Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency for the area, which authorized the dispatch of the National Guard. Now, more than 400 people are working on the fire. 

"We're playing the game with Mother Nature," Regan said. "We're putting everything we can on the fire but our number one priority is safety."

Curry County Sheriff John Ward said that no one within the city limits of Brookings has been asked to evacuate and that the city is not in imminent danger, despite rumors to the contrary.

"We are asking residents to always be prepared during a wildland fire period," Ward said, with a bug-out bag and other supplies that are easily accessible.

While safety of both firefighters and residents, and containment are the two most important considerations during a wildfire, residents who had to evacuate had many questions. What to do with the livestock or household pets? Can they stay at the shelter until the fire danger has passed? Can they go back to their residences to retrieve valuable items left behind? 

With the fire's estimated date of containment unknown, residents are understandably concerned. At the Riley Creek shelter on Monday, officials answered many questions, including how people will be notified when it's safe to return to their homes.

Will Briggs, also a fire information officer, said Monday the fire was calmer, especially compared with the almost five-mile runs in the previous two days. The small reprieve is giving firefighters the opportunity to dig in containment lines around the perimeter of the fire, mostly hand-dug but also using bulldozers. But the "Chetco effect" is expected to come back in full force by Friday.

More than 30 fire engines from across the state are also in various areas around the fire. A staging area and temporary camp has been set up at the Port of Brookings-Harbor.

Briggs also said that when residents are given the OK to "repopulate," it will be done in stages and there will be a process to identify residents to protect valuables. People also asked officials to explain exactly where the fire is and how they can determine if it was close to their homes. An interactive map is available online at Fire information is updated each morning.

Curry County Commissioner Court Boice suggested the audience learn as much as they can about the fire, which he described as predictable, yet unpredictable. 

"All (surrounding) counties are willing to help," Boice said. "And we're going to get you back in your homes as soon as we can."

Animals and livestock from evacuated areas were taken to the Curry County Fairgrounds in Gold Beach. There, volunteers, such as Goodnight Lucas and Lynette Walker of Bandon Feed, along with others, were taking care of the animals' needs. Lucas and Walker asked via Facebook for donations of hay and grain, as well as cat and dog food.

"We're doing what we can but we have limited resources," Lucas said in a video where he showed 10 Siberian huskies being housed temporarily in crates, owned by a woman who was evacuated from Pistol River.

"If you donate dog or cat food, grain or hay or money at Bandon Feed, we'll make sure it gets down here," Lucas said.

Anyone who can help haul hay and grain to Gold Beach can call Lucas at 541-347-1105 after 10 a.m.

Tina Laurino, who works at Riley Creek as a student services secretary, said communication from officials has not been as good as she had hoped. She said no one came to her door to tell her to evacuate from her Pistol River home.

"I found out this morning and not from flyers or from anyone knocking on my door, but from neighbors," Laurino said on Monday. "And we're right on the road."

Laurino said her family already had their cars packed and were ready to leave after a level two evacuation notice was given to residents in South Pistol River. She and her family are staying with friends in Gold Beach, but school starts at Riley Creek next Monday. 

"We might have to have a special school board meeting and the board could postpone the opening of school," she said.

Zachary Pearson stayed Sunday night at the Riley Creek school shelter. He and his wife Nicole Pearson and his 19-year-old son, Emmett Grimes, who is autistic and suffers from seizures, were staying in their van near Miller Bar on the Chetco River when they were told they'd have to move. They were asked to move a few times as the fire progressed before ending up at the Brookings-Harbor High School shelter with a broken down vehicle.

Pearson, who works remotely on IT issues, has been able to do some work while at the shelter, he said. Grimes' service dog, Kaos, has been allowed to stay with him. When the Brookings-Harbor High School shelter was closed down, the Red Cross paid for Pearson and his family to take a cab with their belongings to the Riley Creek school. 

"These people have been the most amazing people I've ever met," Pearson said, getting emotional. "We have nowhere else to go. I'm 45 years old and have been through four forest fires, but this one is scary. I'm so thankful they have given us a place to sleep and food. If it wasn't for these people, we'd be in a field in a fire zone.

"As hard and stressful as this is, it was the most practical thing for us to do," he said. "I'm certainly glad I've supported and donated to the Red Cross over the years."

Monique Dugaw, Red Cross regional communications director, said about 60 people stayed the night Sunday at the Riley Creek shelter and more were expected on Monday night. The Red Cross helps with shelter, food, clothing and with getting people back on their feet after the fire. 

"We're working with them to make sure their basic needs are met in a stressful situation and to not make it more stressful," Dugaw said. "We want to create as stable a situation as possible."

"A wildfire is dynamic and evolving and unpredictable and our fire crews are doing an outstanding job trying to contain the fire," Dugaw added. "But we're here to help people with their immediate needs. Sometimes it's as simple as getting a shower or a meal."

Dugaw said 90 percent of Red Cross workers are volunteers. 

"As long as there's a need, we'll be here," Dugaw said.

The Chetco Bar Fire was first reported on July 12. The initial size-up of the fire was one-quarter acre, caused by lightning and burning in the 2002 Biscuit Fire and 1987 Silver Fire scars located on the steep slopes of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The fire is burning in areas of fire scar and islands that were previously unburned. The combination of down, dead fuels with a newly cured grass makes the terrain hazardous for firefighters.

Fire managers recognize the Chetco Bar Fire will likely be a long term event. It is being managed under a suppression strategy using a mixture of direct, indirect and point protection tactics when and where there is a high probability of success, officials said.

Chetco Bar Fire information: 541-469-1177.

Tourists and locals enjoy eclipse
Businesses didn't report much impact

COOS COUNTY – As temperatures dropped, locals and tourists alike looked up through eclipse glasses on Monday.

People got ready for the big event in Coos County by pulling out lawn chairs, setting time out of work, and even setting up telescopes. Tourists from Sacramento, Calif., grouped together on the lawn outside of Coos Bay's Best Western. Their goal hadn't been to travel to places like Newport or Corvallis, but instead to sit right there next to the bay.

“We decided to come here to avoid the traffic,” Dianne Sacco said. “We didn't want to deal with the crowds.”

However, not all of the tourists on the Best Western lawn had planned to watch the eclipse here.

“We were trying to visit friends in Bend but knew that was impossible, so we ended up here,” said Luanna Wharton from Oxnard, Calif.

Though the eclipse brought tourists, it didn't make much of an impact on business owners or at least an impact that could be tracked.

Over at So It Goes Coffee in Coos Bay, owner John Beane had an employee create eclipse latte art for customers.

“Last week had been super busy, but today was slow,” Beane said. “Even during the eclipse, we had a good crowd outside, a lot of people on the street watching. All week long, leading up to today, it's been some of the busiest days we've had, but not everyone was here doing the eclipse thing.”

In fact, Sunday had been the coffee shop's busiest day so far this month. Beane said they've seen tourists traveling up and down Highway 101, including plenty of Europeans, but added that “This is our busy time anyway, so it's hard to gauge.”

Cheryl Crockett, manager at the Coos Bay Visitor's Center, echoed Beane's comment by saying summer is always filled with a lot of people from out of town.

“I don't know that we had a huge uptick in numbers that would make me say, 'Oh yes, this is because of the eclipse,'” Crockett said. “I do know that a lot of businesses downtown are closed on Mondays just because they are smaller and already open all weekend, so overall I wouldn't say we saw a large impact from this event.”

In fact, Crockett said Monday was quiet.

The Oregonian reported similar sentiments from business owners just 24 hours before the eclipse. Though business owners had stocked a surplus of food and clothing to accommodate the hyped-up crowds, panic had started to set in because they were seeing smaller numbers show up to their shops than a typical day in August.

Even so, traffic was seen on Oregon highways. More traffic is expected in places like Coos County as the tourists head home.

“Based on the fact that there's not a lot of north/south routes in Oregon, the majority of people will be coming up the 101, 5, and 97 roads, which are the main ones,” said Mike Murphy in a previous interview, Coos County's emergency manager. “Of course, Interstate 5 will be the main route, but I expect delays here.”

Murphy advised for local residents to allow extra time to reach their destinations.

“Right now at this time of year, most hotels and camp grounds are full anyway,” Murphy said. “We're used to heavy traffic in the summer, but it will get worse for this event. At least all of this traffic will be moving through.”

The World reached out to the Mill Hotel and Casino to see how full they are in response to the flood of tourists.

“Our hotel director informs me that we haven’t seen any increase in guests on the 21st,” said Ray Doering, spokesman for the Coquille Tribe. “However, we do have at least 100 rooms blocked for five tour buses on the following day, Aug. 22. They will be staying with us on their way back to California after witnessing the event further north.”