Jane Stebbins
The Curry Coastal Pilot

No one was injured in an early-morning fire Sunday that torched a cabin — for the second time in as many years — at Whaleshead Resort about 10 miles north of Brookings.

But it has firefighters and residents living near the hillside resort concerned about how they might escape if a fire strikes there again.

A neighbor was outside at 3 a.m. Sunday when he spotted the fire; he went around to adjacent rental units to wake and warn people.

The fire was contained to Unit U-15, near the top of the steep neighborhood; heat damaged the exterior of an adjacent unit.

The cabin also had a 75-gallon propane tank located within a few feet of the structure that firefighters had to keep cool or risk it exploding.

“It didn’t pop,” said Cape Ferrelo Rural Fire Department Chief Aaron Johnson, of the pressure relief valve. “It was next to the garage, and we saved the garage — again.”

He gave accolades to the other districts that responded to his mutual aid request with tankers filled with water. Those departments included Brookings, Harbor and Winchuck, Coos Fire Protective Association and their investigative team.

The incident was over by 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

A dearth of water

One of the challenges in the Cape Ferrelo Fire District is obtaining water because there are no hydrants.

“We cart water by wheel,” Johnson said, noting that his department doesn’t even have a manifold that links fire hose to hydrants and tankers.

“We probably put 7,000 gallons on that fire, and every bit of it was trucked in,” said Lt. Hill. “Luckily we had the support of everyone else bringing us water. We really appreciated it; we couldn’t have done it without them.”

The resort gets its water from Whaleshead Creek and transports it, 500-gallon tank by 500-gallon tank, to a giant cistern atop a nearby hill. The gravity feed from that, however, would take at an hour or two to fill a fire truck’s tank, which can be emptied within a matter of minutes.

“This is a very, very dangerous location for our district, mainly because of a lack of resources and limited water,” Johnson said. “It’s (getting) too costly and too risky for my firefighters.”

Of the eight firefighters on scene from Cape Ferrelo, one couldn’t help extinguish the fire because he was in charge of keeping the propane tank cool and prevent it from exploding.

No one from Whaleshead was available for official comment.

Most of Johnson’s 15 volunteers — eight of whom can be depended on to show up on every call — are “retired gentlemen,” the 39-year-old chief said. “They’re not spring chickens. And these angles, these slopes, the close quarters — it’s a dangerous piece of land, especially for firefighters.”

He equates the neighborhood with a giant hotel, with lots of different visitors coming and going, and most of whom don’t know the area and its inherent dangers.

“That increases our dangers, our risk,” he said.

Johnson said the rest of the resort was fortunate in that the cabin that caught fire was located at one of the upper tiers of the terraced neighborhood.

“That’s good for the (people below them),” he said, “but when buildings collapse on steep slopes, when a wall collapses and slides down the hill?”

Limited access

Another challenge in that neighborhood, built in the 1980s as an RV resort and later modified to include the cabins and some double-wide park model homes, is that there is one steep, paved road into and out of the resort. Roads within the resort are winding, narrow, circuitous and steep. Many likely could not accommodate fire trucks.

The only other way out would be over the few dirt roads that lead to Carpenterville Road.

“Provided no one’s dropped any trees across them,” Johnson said of the private owners trying to keep people off their land. “And the road itself, the potholes, the ruts. ...”

A woman named Lynn, who asked that her last name not be used, lives about a mile up Whaleshead Road, has thought about what to do if a wildfire encroached on her family’s property.

“It’s something that we’re really aware of,” she said. “We know we live at the end of the road, and because of how remote we are, we have to have a second exit. I don’t know if we could get our trailer down. Ultimately, we could go all the way up Whaleshead, but we definitely couldn’t take the trailer. And we have all these animals.”

She and her husband wonder, too, if the fire itself would be their first warning.

“How would we even be notified?” she said. “Do we get a (reverse) 911 call? Our cell phones are off at night. All the landlines are going to be down. It’s kind of a reality check. How do we get out of here? My fear has always been a fire would jump from house to house.”

Johnson agreed.

“These are the mitigation disasters we face,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be important to anyone in this county until there’s an incident. It’s sad, really sad. If we just do a little bit of (preparation) before, we’ll be a lot better off. I start looking around; how do you sleep at night?”

He cited the cabins at Whaleshead that feature lofts with scenic views, but no way to escape.

“There’s lofts with no ladders out the windows,” Johnson said. “Some of the windows are so small, an average-sized person couldn’t crawl through them.”

That neighborhood is by far not the only one that faces those challenges.

The one thing residents on Marina Drive, Marine Heights, Parkview Avenue and many others have in common is what they don’t have: a second means of egress.

Anderson said the fire was a good one for his crew.

“We get maybe one structure fire a year; it worked well,” he said. “They did an amazing job.”

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Lynn said. “We live on the coast, there’s a lot of fog, but with that comes a lot of green that dies off. I see all of that and it makes me really nervous.”

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