Fire crews make progress in OR

BY SUSAN KIM | SELMA, OR | August 4, 2002

"We’ve gathered stuff we need to take care of ourselves when we’re away from home."

—Rev. Harold Premdas

Fire crews in Oregon made progress on the 188,000-acre wildfire threatening some 17,000 Illinois Valley homes.

About 1,000 people were still displaced Sunday, when the fire was about five percent contained.

Nearly 500,000 acres were burning in fires across Oregon over the weekend.

Some residents left the communities of O'Brien, Cave Junction, Selma, and Kerby, and by the weekend the risk had lessened for some 17,000 others, who had been previously warned they may have to evacuate with only a half hour's notice.

Residents across Oregon’s Illinois Valley were glued to televisions and radios, waiting for evacuation orders, or for the sound of firefighters already knocking on doors and warning people to leave.

“We’ve gathered stuff we need to take care of ourselves when we’re away from home,” said the Rev. Harold Premdas from the Cape Junction, Ore. Seventh-Day Adventist Church. “We’re trying to pack things that can’t be replaced, and also our records, and our computers.”

Seventh-Day Adventist churches in the area, working with Adventist Community Service, have opened their facilities to evacuees who need shelter.

Premdas uttered what everybody fears this week in southwestern Oregon: “If a fire goes through here it will burn everything.”

Oregon’s peak fire season – the month of August – is only beginning.

Faith-based groups were gearing up to help meet needs that might arise in the area. In Jackson County in southwestern Oregon, the Rogue Valley Interfaith Relief Network was on standby to respond. The network, put together in the wake of a flood in 1997, has trained volunteers from 12 area churches.

One service the volunteers provide is an answering service to non-life-threatening calls to 911 during a fire or other disaster, said Paul Robinson of the United Church of Christ disaster ministries network.

“We schedule volunteers in 4-hour shifts,” said Robinson. “They answer questions like ‘Are the roads open? Is the fire heading in my direction? When do I leave?’ ”

Jackson County emergency management provides the volunteers with updated maps showing the location of a fire.

Training is intense, said Robinson, and as a result during actual disasters the volunteers are remarkably calm and effective.

The Rogue Valley Interfaith Relief Network also works with corporate partners to coordinate material donations during disasters, said Robinson. “We know the managers to go see. Within one day we can gather needed materials.”

People with heart problems have been warned to stay inside because of heavy ash fall from the nearby fires.

“The ashes are so bad it looks like it’s snowing,” said Chris Liles, a resident of Smith River, Calif., six miles from the Oregon state line.

Burnt pine needles and smoldering pieces of branches were drifting down along with the ash.

Liles was concerned it would be difficult to move firefighting equipment into some rural locations. “We have so many really remote areas. There are no roads out to them.”

Liles attends the Smith River Baptist church, which had one member who was evacuated over the weekend. Liles and other church members were concerned because nobody could reach her. “She only has a cell phone so nobody could get hold of her,” said Liles.

At the First Baptist Church in Selma, Ore., Catherine Ninow was volunteering to teach vacation bible school. Every day, she said, they ask each other if anyone has heard anything. “Now we’re out here in faith,” she said.

Ninow and others are trying to keep some semblance of their daily lives while being ready to leave quickly.

Area restaurants have been cooking food for firefighters, added Ninow. “At one restaurant, somebody called to ask if the place had burned. The guy there said, ‘We’re not burned but I’m gonna burn the eggs for 150 firefighters if I don’t get off the phone.’ ”

Ninow expressed gratitude to the firefighters for protecting homes. Fifteen firefighters have been killed this year fighting blazes that have burned millions of acres across western states. The latest fatality occurred Tuesday in Colorado, when a helicopter dropping water on hotspots near Rocky Mountain National Park crashed, killing the pilot.

“We all honk and wave when we see the firefighters,” Ninow said. “Their lives are on the line doing this for us.”

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