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As wildfire danger eases in south Linn County, some residents return home
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As wildfire danger eases in south Linn County, some residents return home

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HOLLEY — Like everyone else south of Highway 228 in the Holley and Crawfordsville areas, the folks who run the Holley Market were urged to get to safety last week when the fast-growing Holiday Farm Fire began spreading from the McKenzie River Canyon into southern Linn County.

But with the Level 3 “go now” evacuation order being downgraded to a Level 2 “get set” warning on Sunday, the store was back open and customers were starting to drift back in.

“The owner was here doing some work when she got (the alert),” said Mindi Howland, who was working behind the counter on Sunday morning. “I was going to come down to the store, but she called me and said, ‘No, we’re at Level 3’ and she was leaving.”

Howland, who lives in Sweet Home, said it’s been a tense few days, but she was never too concerned about her personal safety.

“My heart went out to everybody on the hill here,” she said, indicating the isolated homes scattered along Upper Calapooia Drive, which were even closer to the fire lines than the store and were the first in the area to go to Level 3.

“I just prayed they’d take care of (the fire) and it wouldn’t come over the ridge.”

Business was still a bit slow on Sunday, Howland added, but everyone who came in seemed to share a sense of relief that the wildfire threat was receding — at least for now.

“My customers are very thankful they get to come home, very thankful,” Howland said. “I think everybody’s ready for some normalcy.”

Alisha Gillingham, who lives just off Upper Calapooia Drive with her parents, her two children and her aunt, popped into the market to pick up a few snacks. When the evacuation order came, Gillingham said, her aunt went to stay with a daughter in Salem, while the rest of the family has been living in two motor homes on a friend’s property near Sweet Home.

Gillingham said her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter are getting along all right — as long as they have something to keep their minds off the wildfire.

“They’ve done OK because the house we evacuated to has kids to play with, but they don’t want to be in (our) house — they’re scared,” she said.

Even though the evacuation warning has been reduced to a Level 2, Gillingham doesn’t think the family will move back into their own home until it’s lowered to Level 1 or dropped altogether.

“We are up there for the day, doing laundry, but we won’t stay,” she added. “You just don’t know how much time you have. If it happens in the middle of the night, will you have enough time to get out? It’s very nerve-wracking. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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Robert and Carrie Tackitt returned Sunday to their home on Upper Calapooia Drive for the first time since they got the word to evacuate. Their place, about 6 miles up the road from Highway 228, escaped the flames — but not by a lot.

“The fire was 2 miles up the road from our house,” Carrie Tackitt said.

“At night, we could look up and see the red glow over the hill,” Robert Tackitt added.

They got their first Level 1 “get ready” notice on Tuesday morning and it was upgraded to a Level 2 “get set” warning that evening, he recalled. So on Wednesday morning, when Linn County sheriff’s deputies and Oregon State Police troopers came through notifying residents their status had been upgraded again to Level 3, they didn’t hesitate — they collected their two dogs and three horses, hitched up the trailer and left. They’ve been staying at a ranch in the Waterloo area.

With only one way in and out of their heavily timbered rural neighborhood, the Tackitts knew they were in the danger zone, along with other residents of Upper Calapooia Drive.

“We had fires on both sides of us,” Carrie Tackitt said. “My fear was that they would come up below us and trap us in. We lucked out with the wind change — that was the only thing that saved us.”

The strong east winds that turned modest-sized wildfires in the Cascades into raging infernos threatening population centers on the western flank of the range have subsided, and cooler, moister conditions have made it possible for firefighters to begin getting a handle on the dangerous blazes.

“When the weather changed, it allowed some direct attack to happen,” said Sweet Home Fire District Chief Dave Barringer. “That’s what you’re seeing right now.”

Barringer said wildland firefighters from the Oregon Department of Forestry and private timber companies have made good headway in building fire lines to protect Upper Calapooia Drive, the Wiley Creek area south of Sweet Home and other trouble spots on the Linn County side of the Holiday Farm Fire, which is currently listed at 165,000 acres and 5% containment.

But while that progress is encouraging, Barringer noted that much of south Linn County remains under a Level 2 evacuation notice, meaning that people still need to be ready to flee if conditions change and the fire starts coming their way again.

“If you think about it, 5% contained means there’s 95% that’s not contained,” he said.

“There’s three things that make fires work: wind, topography and fuel,” he added. “This fire has a lot of fuel, so that continues to be a threat.”

Linn County Sheriff Jim Yon is thinking along the same lines. For now, at least, his agency is maintaining a Level 2 warning for Upper Calapooia and the lands south of 228 and a Level 1 alert status for Sweet Home, Holley, Crawfordsville and much of the surrounding areas.

The sheriff said he wants to remind folks that the wildfire danger in south Linn County isn’t entirely gone just yet.

“We want to leave (the alert) as it is, just as a precaution, so people stay ready,” Yon said.

Bennett Hall can be contacted at bennett.hall@lee.net or 541-812-6111. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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