On Monday afternoon, Cecelia and Layne Worlton slowly made the 14-mile drive from Brookings toward their 15-acre residence atop Gardner Ridge Road.
The drive was a foggy one, but not on account of their vision being clouded, but rather their minds as they attempted to grapple with the reality that their home of 20 years had been destroyed by the Chetco Bar Fire.
Neither Cecelia nor Layne had seen their home in the past 24 hours – in fact, both were out of town when the U.S. Forest Service issued a mandatory evacuation for residents among the Chetco River above Loeb State Park last Friday morning.
At the time, Cecelia was in Eugene for the eclipse, while Layne, who had just arrived in Coos Bay, promptly turned around. Meanwhile, their children drove to the house to evacuate a number of important items — namely photos, various documents, and medication.
“(They called me) and said, ‘We got everything. We got plenty of time , what else do you want?,’” recounted Cecelia. “I should’ve just said ‘Take everything!’ But I thought, ‘Okay, the Biscuit Fire — it didn’t hit us, (so this fire is) not going to hit us.”
By Friday evening, Layne had arrived back, but was forced to evacuate late Saturday afternoon. That was the last time he would see his home in one piece.
The Worltons didn’t receive word about their house until early Monday, when they received a call from their neighbor Ted Freeman.
“(Ted) called us and said, ‘I think your house is gone,’” recounted Cecelia. “We said, ‘Well, can you see it?’, and he goes, ‘No, it’s ground zero.’”
At the end of their drive the Worlton’s worst fears were realized: Their entire house was toppled, and only a smoldering heap of debris and charred wood remained.
“I fell apart, I just fell apart,” Cecelia said. “I’m known as a person who is not really emotional, and because I’m Native American I don’t cry a lot. It’s very, very seldom. I fell apart.”
While Cecelia’s reaction was one of hurt and pain, Layne’s was one of anger.
“Disbelief, and (anger)” said Layne. “I had witnessed fire resources (that were) available, and I had witnessed the inaction.”
For the Worltons, the sting of losing their home is made all the more acute by what they believe to be a failure of the U.S. Forest Service to take preventive measures.
“I get that there’s rules, but the Forest Service — the only thing they were tasked with is preservation of structures,” Layne said. “The day before the fire actually hit, I’m still here, five trucks sat at the (intersection) an eighth of a mile down from my house. All kinds of vehicles, cruising, just cruising past, and then no protection of the structure. None, absolutely none.
“The structures that now stand in this community are the results of the individual home owners that stayed with garden hoses. Forest Service abandoned us.”
Additionally, the Worltons were expecting a call from the US. Forest Service about cutting down a tree on their property that was a potential fire hazard. No such call ever came.
“They did no wrapping, they did no boundary, no back burn, and this was their only charge as they sat on their butts and drove the roads,” Layne said. “They had the manpower to do (something), they were here the time before imminent danger occurred. I was actually sitting on the deck watching the smoke down below, they had all kinds of time, but (failed) to act.”
Granted, the Worltons understand the inherent risks of living in such a rural area that they do, but it still doesn’t answer the question of why the fire was allowed to spread as far as it did.
“We just don’t understand why it couldn’t be stopped before it crossed the river, before it came out of the wilderness,” said Layne. “Why wasn’t it stopped then?”
To clarify, it isn’t the firefighters whom the Worltons are directing their anger towards, but their management.
“My hats are off to the fighters; the people in command need to take responsibility. This is shameful,” Layne said.
According to the Worltons, the response of the U.S. Forest Service stands in stark contrast to that of the Coos Forest Protective Association back in 2002 when the Biscuit Fire broke out.
“They were up here, they had the stuff they were going to wrap the house with, they put bottles around the garage,” recalled Cecelia. “They helped clean the eaves out of the house, they were helping cut limbs and stuff. It was awesome.”
“Great response. This go around? Shame, shame.”
In the fallout of losing their home, Cecelia has been struggling trying to understand why. Why was their home taken from them? And of all people, why them?
Just the month before the fire broke out, the Worltons had been busy upkeeping their home. Layne had put the finishing touches towards staining their deck, while she was busy canning peaches and beans from her garden before going on vacation.
“So much work went into this, and it’s gone,” lamented Cecelia. “It’s just gone. Why did I do all that work?”
Twenty years ago, Cecelia first stepped onto the property as prospective buyer. It reminded her of her home near Springfield and she quickly formed a bond with the area.
“This is kind of weird, but I connected with the rocks and I connected with the grass and flowers and stuff,” said Cecelia. “ It was just like... I’m at home.”
And over the course of the next two decades, their house grew to become a home not only for their children, but for members of the community as well.
“We’ve shared this home with many (people), church groups, and my kids and all their friends would come up. It’s so far out of town that when they came up, they stayed overnight because we didn’t want them driving back at night time,” said Cecelia. “We just have lots and lots of people up here we shared it with. It was a very very nice house, but why was it taken? I don’t understand why it was taken.”
Currently, the Worltons are staying with their son in Harbor, where they note they are being well taken care of. As for what the future holds, the Worlton’s aren’t too sure.
“We really don’t know,” said Layne, who requested the public not set up any accounts on their behalf. “There are other families up here that need it far more than us, but we thank you for your concern.”
Cecelia noted that the two have the option of rebuilding their home, but expressed her doubts.
“I don’t think so, (after) two fires in 15 years,” Cecelia said. “This was my sanctuary, we both absolutely loved it up here.”
What the Worltons do know, however, is they want answers about why their house was taken from them
“Did somebody make a mistake? Just tell us what happened. Tell us why it got this far,” said Cecelia.