Retirees Ford and Monica Williams were getting ready for a quiet Sunday night at home when they saw their neighbors packing up to leave.
“At 6 p.m. our neighbors were leaving. We did not get an alert, so when they said they were leaving, then we packed up and left at 7 because we thought we better get out,” Monica Williams said. “Plus it was really eerie.”
They spent that night in their car, then found a motel room for a night. Since Tuesday, they’ve been sleeping at the Red Cross Relief Center in the gym at Riley Creek Elementary in Gold Beach.
Map: Chetco Bar Fire
“It’s a basketball court there, and they’ve got all these cots, and they give you blankets,” Ford Williams said. “I had a good sleep. They turned all the lights off and we had a little kennel between the two beds with our dog in there.”
The Chetco Bar Fire is the nation’s top priority wildfire and has burned more than 100,000 acres since its start last month. It’s also forced about 4,000 people, including Ford and Monica Williams, from their homes under mandatory evacuation orders.
The Williams were allowed to go home briefly this week but only to get supplies. The fire is now just five miles from Brookings, a coastal town of 6,500 people, and proving exceptionally hard to control.
State Rep. David Brock Smith serves the affected area and says some of his constituents think the fire should have been tackled more aggressively early on with large aerial tankers, a more expensive option than what’s been used so far.
“They’re afraid for their homes and their families and just want answers,” said Brock Smith, a Republican. “… I don’t think now is the time to have that conversation. But it’s a conversation that we will have.”
Some residents speculate that the fire wasn’t put out quickly because of a movement to allow naturally caused wildfires to burn as a way to keep fuel loads low and avoid really catastrophic fires.
But Lynne Lockwood with the Incident Command Center says crews have been trying to put the Chetco Bar Fire out since lightning started it on July 12.
“In this specific instance they recognized that they wanted to suppress it immediately,” Lockwood said. “It was the wrong time of the year, and so it has been suppression all along.”
Crews have been dousing the fire with water dropped from helicopters. They’ve also been digging lines in the dirt. That helps stop the blaze by removing combustible material.
But the fire still rages. In this particular part of Oregon, there are a lot of trees that have been killed by Sudden Oak Death, a disease that attacks healthy trees. Dead, dry wood burns much hotter and much quicker than live green wood.
There’s also a local weather phenomenon called the Chetco effect that makes this fire unusually hard to stop. Most of the time, cool, wet winds blow into this area from the Pacific Ocean. But every now and then, the situation reverses and hot, dry winds rush down the Chetco Valley from inland.
That fueled the massive growth of the fire last weekend and they’re forecast for the next few days.
In total, more than 1,100 people are now working the Chetco Bar Fire. It’s still zero percent contained, and authorities say it won’t truly be out until October. That means a long spell of more uncertainty for residents like Ford and Monica Williams.