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Fires force families to make hard choices

Many evacuated, but some stayed as flames approached
 Posted: 2:00 AM August 15, 2013

GLENDALE — The Wytcherley family home sits right where the old Reuben general store once did, across Cow Creek Road from an old sawmill site, five miles west of Glendale.

Since the Douglas Complex fires took off nearly three weeks ago, Chris, his wife, Brandi, their three children and a friend, Jeremiah Smith, held the fort on their 115-acre spread called Reuben Ranch.

They've weathered the storm — flames, lines of fire trucks, choking smoke and a deputy screaming at them to evacuate.

Update on region's wildfires

Big Windy

Location: 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass

Size: 15,447 acres

Personnel: 1,330

Containment: 15 percent

Expected full containment: Sept. 1

Brimstone

Location: 7 miles northwest of Merlin

Size: 2,372

Personnel: 85

Containment: 100 percent on Aug. 5

Whiskey Complex

Location: 6 miles east of Tiller

Size: 11,471 acres

Personnel: 558

Containment: 55 percent

Expected full containment: Aug. 20

Labrador

Location: 13 miles northwest of

Cave Junction

Size: 2,022 acres

Personnel: 77

Containment: Not known

Douglas Complex

Location: 7 miles north of Glendale

Size: 45,533 acres

Containment: 50 percent

Salmon River Complex

Location: Sawyers Bar, Calif.

Size: 11,698 acres

Personnel: 1,148

Containment: 45 percent

Orleans Complex

Location: 10 miles east of Somes Bar, Calif.

Size: 12,460 acres

Personnel: 938

Containment: 22 percent

Expected full containment: Sept. 15

"We watched that mountain go up in an inferno," said Chris, pointing across Cow Creek to the south. "We took turns fire-watching. It sounded like a jet engine. At 3 a.m., we could feel heat waves."

That was Saturday, July 27, a day after lightning sparked the Rabbit Mountain and Dad's Creek fires. Dad's Creek advanced to within a couple of football fields of their home, burning 60 acres of timber on their property.

A line of 100 firefighters, a bulldozer and a Chinook helicopter the next day helped saved the day.

"You can see where they held the line," Brandi said.

Sixteen-year-old Matthew celebrated his birthday that day.

"It was a big surprise of candles," 13-year-old Christian joked, standing on the blackened earth by the fire line.

Christian and Caleb, 11, took turns watering the roof.

When the fire was just a plume, on July 26, Caleb put his hand through a window, so the family was in Grants Pass getting him stitched up when their cellphones "blew up" with the news.

When they got home, already six trucks were there, and the fire was raging on the mountain.

"That's when we knew it was serious," Brandi said, holding up her phone with photos of smoke on the ridge and a nighttime red glow.

Numerous other families along Cow Creek, McCullough Creek and Mount Reuben roads across Cow Creek followed warnings and evacuated.

The Wytcherleys packed their computer tower, photo albums and a couple of family heirlooms, but decided to stick it out, other than Brandi and the children leaving during a few of the worst hours. Chris said he wanted to be there to stomp out any spot fires.

They saw unknown vehicles pull into the driveway and someone on a bicycle with a backpack along Cow Creek Road.

"That was a big reason we stayed. We didn't want to get broken into, with all these empty houses around," Chris said. "A guy was casing the place."

Chris said a Douglas County sheriff's deputy made a second pass by the house and screamed, "Nothing's worth your life! Get out of here!"

"We weren't going to do anything heroic or anything like that," Chris said. "I told Brandi to get the kids out, but I'm like,'I have to go back.' " It turned out Brandi and the children were gone less than a day.

On Facebook, they heard they had lost the ranch, one of a few rumors on the social media.

"Social media helped with some things and didn't help with others," Brandi said.

The fire threat eased two days later, but it hasn't been a picnic since the residents in the area were officially allowed to return home within the last week.

Thick smoke didn't lift until three days ago, and fire trucks rumble past day and night, with rush hour in the morning and evening. Helicopters clatter overhead all day and occasionally at night.

On Tuesday, smoke curled above the spring up the hill from the house, requiring a fire crew to extinguish the hot spot.

But life has reached a semblance of order in the face of the wildfires. The boys are starting to play football, and the parents are back at work.

"We're getting used to it," Brandi said.

Reach Grants Pass Daily Courier reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com.


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