Scott Graves
Curry Coastal Pilot

Watch video of the community fire meeting on the Pilot's Facebook page:

While the Chetco Bar Fire continued to churn through the wilderness around Brookings — consuming up to 92,000 acres and three homes as of Monday —more than 800 people filled the Azalea Middle School in Brookings that night to get the latest fire news and ask specific question such as:

“Why the delay in response?”

“How can we help firefighters and our neighbors?”

“What’s the plan if Brookings needs to evacuate?”

The answer to the first question was somewhat complicated, said Incident Commander Scott Majors.

The fire, triggered by a lightning strike July 12 in remote wilderness 26 miles east of Brookings, was very slow moving. For the first three weeks it didn’t pose much of a threat, charring about 100 to 150 acres a day.

Fire officials were counting on natural barriers — steep mountain terrain and the Chetco River — to keep the fire from spreading.

“For three weeks that worked; the fire was fairly benign,” said Incident Commander Bob Houseman. “Then, on Aug. 16 and 17, the wind increased, the humidity dropped and the fuel dried out, and the fire jumped the Chetco River.”

The fire spread quickly, prompting fire officials to call in additional resources.

“It takes some time to bring in 200 pieces of heavy equipment and 215 firefighters,” Majors said. “We moved as quickly as possible.”

Some fire officials said during the meeting that they were caught off guard by the local Chetco Effect, during which hot, dry winds fanned the flames south down the Chetco River drainage. The fire nearly doubled each day, four days in a row.

“It went from 6,000 acres to 20,00, to 40,000 to 92,000,” Houseman said. “It was very fast moving and our top priority was to evacuate people and protect structures.”

The wind also kept the smoke column low to the ground, preventing aircraft from dumping water and fire retardant.

He told the crowd, “Now, this fire is number one in national priority.”

As for how to help firefighters and neighbors, Curry County Sheriff John Ward encouraged people to obey instructions from law enforcement and fire personnel, especially at check points leading in and out of evacuation areas.

One woman asked what the plan was if Brookings had to evacuate quickly.

Oregon State Police Deputy Superintendent Terri Davies said if that became necessary, “and that’s a very big if,” the Oregon Department of Transportation, could shut down Highway quickly to allow residents to leave.

The first two-thirds of the meeting featured various fire and law enforcement officials explaining the history of the fire, its current status and what is being planned for the rest of this week.

Less wind and lower temperatures on Monday slowed the fire down on most fronts, giving firefighters a chance to build fire lines around structures in the fire’s path.

Ward reported at 3 p.m. Monday that the fire’s westward march toward Carpenterville Road has slowed, but it has come within 2 to 3 miles of the road in a few areas.

A mandatory evacuation was issued Sunday for residents living on the east and west side of the 15-mile stretch of Carpenterville Road, as well as for those living closer to the coast from the north end of Brookings to Pistol River.

Meanwhile, the southern edge of the fire moving along the Chetco River drainage has slowed somewhat and had reached Nook Bar, about 4 miles east of Loeb State Park and 12 miles from Brookings.

“If the weather hadn’t changed, it could have reached Carpenterville (Road) by this afternoon, but it’s just creeping along,” Ward said Monday.

The weather is expected to remain relatively calm until Friday, when another “Chetco Effect” is expected to be bring strong winds and higher temperatures to the area.

“We’re going to put all of our resources on it now and for the next few days before that happens,” Ward said.

At a 1 p.m. press conference in Brookings Monday, Ward confirmed that three homes at the top of Garner Ridge Road near Cate Road were destroyed by the Chetco Bar Fire. The families escaped unscathed, he said.

The homes, located west of the Chetco River about 20-plus miles up Gardner Ridge Road from its intersection with North Bank Chetco Ridge Road, were destroyed Sunday when the northern edge of the fire made a quick run west.

The fire behavior is what prompted Sunday’s evacuation notice for residents living along Carpenterville Road.

What the fire does next is mostly dependent on the weather, said Mark Regan, fire information officer.

“We’re playing the game with Mother Nature,” Regan said. “We’re bringing in more resources. As long as the weather cooperates with us ...”

No additional evacuation orders have been issues since then.

During the conference, Ward addressed the persistent rumor that the city of Brookings was going to be evacuated soon.

“No. That is completely false,” he said.

Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman confirmed that to the crowd at Monday night’s community meeting.

Fighting the fire

On Sunday, firefighters battling the fire overnight focused on protecting structures in the Wilderness Retreat area and those along the eastern side of Carpenterville Road

“Efforts to protect homes in the Wilderness Retreat area were successful, but the fire is still a threat there,” Regan said. “This morning, we are also focusing on structures along Carpenterville Road, where the fire activity is very high.”

At 9:40 a.m. Monday, trees on fire were reported along North Bank Chetco River Road about two or three miles east of Loeb State Park. A half-hour earlier emergency personnel responded to the report at Redwood Bar of a tree that fell on a car, injuring a woman inside. A “hard closure” was established at the intersection of Gardner Ridge Road and North Bank Chetco River Road to prevent anybody other than fire crews access up river.

As of Monday, there were 400 firefighting personnel battling the fire, which has burned about 92,000 acres and is not contained. No major injuries or deaths have been reported, he said. Smoke and ash will continue to pose a health hazard in the Brookings and Harbor area.

While a thick fog blanketed the immediate coast all day Monday, the weather just a few miles inland was dry and breezy with a temperature nearing 70.

Meanwhile, evacuations of residents immediately east and north of Brookings continued Monday morning. An estimated 3,000 people have been urged to leave their homes.

A mandatory evacuation is in place for residents living along the Highway 101 corridor from the coast east to Carpenterville Road from north of Brookings to Pistol River.

Evacuation orders remain in place for areas east of Brookings, along both sides of the Chetco River, starting at Da-Tone Rock on the north bank and Shady Lane on the south bank.

Firefighters and support crew are pouring into the city of Brookings, setting up camps at Brookings-Harbor High School and the Kite Field at the Port of Brookings Harbor.

Members of Oregon’s National Guard arrived Monday to patrol the evacuated areas and man checkpoints.

The American Red Cross Shelter initially established at the high school has been relocated to Riley Creek Elementary, 94350 6th Street, Gold Beach.

On Monday, Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman urge residents to conserve water immediately.

“We need to conserve water for use in fire protection,” Milliman said.

City public works crews were checking all fire hydrants in the city, and keeping water storage at maximum capacity.

“Emergency generators have been fueled and other preparatory activity is underway,” he said.

Milliman urged citizens to take the following immediate steps to conserve water:

•Turn off landscape irrigation systems.

•Do not wash-down driveways and other paved areas.

•Take only short showers and do not use bathtubs.

•Flush toilets only when necessary.

•Curtail use of hoses.

“We are keeping as much water in reserve as we can for possible use in firefighting,” Milliman said. “We are calling upon the public to help in this effort.”