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Responses to evacuation orders vary

"I'm thrilled! It never felt so good to come home!" blurted Debbie Wilson, after recent rain and cooler temperatures tamped down the enormous Chetco Bar Fire and allowed hundreds of evacuated Curry County residents back onto their properties.

Initially, when the evacuation order came, Wilson, who lives north of Brookings, had packed a bag, stuffed her cats in crates and bunked in with a cousin in Medford.

"It's unnerving though, having this huge fire so close by," Wilson said, "but staying at my cousin's was just another kind of awful. I could hardly breathe over there from all the smoke from other wildfires."

"For many of us, part of what's attractive about this place is its wild character," said Mark Sherwood, a fishing guide from Brookings. "But there are inherent risks that come from living in big wild places. The forests burn — and they'll burn again. And the rivers flood. So maybe what it means to live in this place is to accept some of that risk, to plan for tsunamis, don't live in flood plains and build defensible spaces to increase fire safety."

On the other side of the 184,244-acre Chetco fire, eight miles up the Wild and Scenic Illinois River Road, where a Level 3 evacuation order remains in place, Ronnie Chittim sits calmly on her 20-acre property, with no plans to leave — unless flames pretty much lap at her doorstep.

"A deputy knocked on our door and told us we had to pack our cars," Chittim said. "Adrenaline kicked in. We turned on sprinklers and we weren’t leaving till the pond pump was watering the house roof. Plus, other sprinklers a quarter mile away had to be turned on. Breathing heavy, I was furious at how little notice we had. Then I realized it didn’t matter. We were as prepared as we could be — and there was no sign of fire!"

So Chittim, reasoning that the big trees that could have caused a crown fire nearby had already burned in the 2002 Biscuit Fire, set to work with friends to fortify her defenses.

"Forest Service crews also came and put pumps in the river and strung lines to the cabins," Chittim said. "They were hard-working, courteous and professional and not a bit concerned they were going to be caught in a conflagration."

Then it began to sprinkle and rain for three days.

"So I’ve moved the dog and cat food out of the car — along with my toothbrush," she said. "We're staying."

"It's a personal decision," said East Zone Public Information Officer Karen Ripley. "A Level 3 notice means we may not be able to get back in to tell people they have to leave."

Regarding safety in the Illinois Valley, where hundreds remain under a Level 1 "get ready" evacuation alert, Ripley said "we're feeling really good" about recent progress made to re-open the old Biscuit fire lines.

"Firefighting is a patient business. You work to prepare and then wait for it to approach," she said. "And the fire is still miles away. But it's all about weather. If the wind kicks up and the fine fuels dry out again — and if the fire starts making a run and there isn't much smoke, then we can slow the fire's progress with helicopter water drops. And every day that passes, we get one day closer to a season-ending rain event."

On the west side, where the fire is holding about five miles from Brookings, Public Information Officer Terry Krasko said crews took advantage of the recent rain and were able to mop up some spots where the blaze had leapt over the fire lines.

"The rain put down a lot of the smoke in the air," he added, "so we've had very successful air operations in past few days, we've done numerous bucket drops."

"But the show's not over," said Checto Bar Fire Incident Commander Noel Livingston. "We have a lot of work ahead of us still."

— Reach Illinois Valley freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.

Ronnie Chittim has pumps ready to pull water from a pond on her property on Illinois River Road east of the Chetco Bar fire. [Photo courtesy of Ronnie Chittim]