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Nurse manager shares firsthand account of fighting wildfire in Oregon

| Everyday Moments | Community

Firefighters consult about the Holiday Farm fire

More than 2,000 PeaceHealth caregivers were either ordered to evacuate or prepare to evacuate.

In September 2020, numerous wildfires ravaged the state of Oregon. One of the fires, the Holiday Farm wildfire*, has destroyed more than 174,000 acres in the scenic McKenzie River Valley, east of Springfield, Ore. The blaze came within just a few miles of PeaceHealth’s 347-bed hospital, Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend. More than 2,000 PeaceHealth caregivers were living in the fire’s evacuation zone and at least 15 lost their homes.

Charene “Charlie” Dehne is a nurse manager at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at University District in nearby Eugene. She's also a volunteer firefighter EMT with McKenzie Fire and Rescue. Below is her first-person account of fighting this fire.

I have been a volunteer firefighter EMT for 20 years. It’s how I got started in the medical field.

While we always talk about preparedness and try to be prepared ourselves, I don’t think anyone is truly prepared the first time a wildfire comes to their town or location.

On Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, I went to work as usual as a nurse manager at PeaceHealth’s hospital in Eugene. That evening, McKenzie Fire and Rescue sent out an all-call, alerting me and my fellow volunteer firefighters to go to our stations. Almost from the word go we’ve had 20-30 volunteers who’ve been working around the clock.

A wind-driven wildfire like we had is very devastating and hard to get in front of. You just pick those spaces that are defensible. We practiced “bump and run” firefighting, where we go to a home and try to bump the fire out and save that home, then run to the next one.

I was very fortunate that we were able to turn the fire before it got to my house on Deerhorn Road.

Our crew along with other volunteer agencies fought hard to preserve the safe zone at McKenzie High School and landmarks important to local residents and to the area’s tourism industry.

We managed to save the heart of Vida, including our fire station and the Vida Café. Our guys put up a really good fight for the Goodpasture Bridge. We know how important the historic covered bridge is to our community, and it’s a sight to see when it’s all lit up for Christmas.

At Leaburg Dam, our crews noticed that water had stopped flowing into the hatchery, so they poured enough water into the sturgeon pond to keep those huge white sturgeon alive.

It’s heartbreaking that we weren’t able to do more, but sometimes the fire moves too fast, or the space isn’t defensible.

Under a call for mutual aid, my fire department and the departments around us worked together to fight this fire. Our law enforcement partners and the National Guard also provided support and helped protect area homes and keep roads clear. And we’re amazed by the generosity of our community. We’ve been overwhelmed with donations.

Fighting this fire has really been a total community effort.

I spent that first night at our station in Leaburg, tracking the location of our firefighters and trucks and charting where the head of the fire was traveling. I didn’t sleep until after midnight on Tuesday, and then, like other volunteers, only caught a few hours of rest.

The next morning, I went into town, grabbed food and supplies for the volunteers, and continued my tracking, until the Oregon Department of Forestry took over the fire. Then, drawing from my experience in emergency management and as a cook and supplies coordinator in the Air National Guard, I became the resource officer for the district. I handled phone calls for donations, decided what we could use, picked up donations and organized them at the station so crews could quickly get what they needed.

I also helped to field hundreds of calls a day from anxious evacuees: Is my home still standing? When can we come back? Can you check on my dog or cat?

A lot of times the people calling just needed someone to listen to them for a few minutes. It’s different when a fire like this is in your own backyard because we truly do know what people are going through.

The waiting is probably the worst part of all--waiting to see if their homes are still standing, waiting to come back in and get their pets or livestock.

In addition to looking after the safety of residents and their property, several people in our department have been driving a brush truck out every day to feed and water pets and livestock.

Dr. Brian Reister, a local veterinarian and former volunteer firefighter with our department, left keys to his clinic with our chief and told us to use whatever food we needed.  

We’ve gotten to know and love some of these animals, like the black Shetland pony we nicknamed Houdini because no matter how many times we put him in a pen, he got out.

I’m just really proud to serve with my fellow volunteer firefighters, and super proud to be part of PeaceHealth.

I was without cell service for the first couple of days of the fire because the AT&T cell tower was down. My managers checked on me multiple times, and they allowed me to take a week to support my fire department full-time.

Coworkers picked up my trailer and other items from my house, which they’ve kept safe at their homes.

The PeaceHealth family has truly been a blessing for me.

I cannot emphasize how much my fire department and those departments around us really came together to fight this fire. I also am overwhelmed by the support I have received from my coworkers and leaders during this time.

*Visit InciWeb for an update on the Holiday Farm Fire.

Top photo: Members of the crew gather to discuss current conditions. Photo provided courtesy of Charene Dehne.