This week’s #WomanCrushWednesday goes out to one of the less than 50 fire chiefs in the nation – a woman who lost her own home while saving other peoples’ homes AND lives – McKenzie Rural Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews.
Chief Rainbow grew up in tiny Allegany, Oregon in Coos County. She graduated from Marshfield High School and went to college at the University of Oregon (Go, Ducks!), earning a degree in English (creative writing) with a minor in human physiology. She considered a career in medicine but when opportunities arose in the fire service, she grabbed them, despite having to work much harder than men in the same positions. She had plenty of doubters and not a lot of female mentors, but she never doubted herself. She was a volunteer with Brownsville Fire for a decade, before she was hired at McKenzie Fire. When she went back to school, she became a volunteer Lieutenant with McKenzie Fire, spending 18 years in that role. She was hired as the Fire Chief for Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District two years ago, before one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in Oregon’s history.
So, about that night. Labor Day evening, Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews was called out of her Vida home for a small grass fire, near the Holiday Farm RV park in Blue River, along the McKenzie. She called for a battalion of neighboring crews to help fight it, but those crazy winds turned that small grass fire into a conflagration in no time. The fire jumped Highway 126 and headed toward homes, so Chief Rainbow and her fellow firefighters started knocking on doors and telling people it was time to leave, immediately. Her instinct to raise the evacuation level early was spot on and is credited with saving many, many lives. All the while, her own home was burning to the ground. Other losses that night: Her sons’ homes, the homes of several of her crew members, her fire station in Blue River, just to name a few. But Chief Rainbow didn’t have time to think about that – she had people to rescue and fire to fight. So she did – FOR MORE THAN TWO FULL DAYS AND NIGHTS! Chief Rainbow had no time to be scared. And she wasn’t – until she became stranded in her truck after hitting a fallen boulder, flattening her tire. Then the community she was fighting so hard to save came to her aid – in the form of her friend Vern, who runs a tow truck company. Vern and friends showed up, changed the tire, and took off again. Chief Rainbow went back to work, later telling her family, “It’s hard to fight a fire with a broken heart.”
The following day – remember, she hasn’t had a break – she stopped by the fire station for supplies. She found a scared little displaced baby water bird near her truck. You didn’t think she was going to walk away, did you? The Chief gently scooped up the baby bird and took it back home to the McKenzie River.
The Holiday Farm fire was only recently completely contained. It burned more than 173,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 buildings, many of them private homes. One man died. Without question, many others would have died, if not for Chief Rainbow’s decision to raise the evacuation order early. Thousands of people lost everything they owned and will be rebuilding for years, including the Chief and her family. But in her own words – “Somebody has to do it. Someone has to lead and help and get the healing and rebuilding process started, and I am the Chief, and I am in a position to impact that, so I just have to be strong. And I have to do it for everyone else and hopefully, we can all find our way.”
If you can help, or if you need help, here are a few ways: