As Chetco Bar Fire Delays School Year, Superintendent Steps Up For Fire Crews

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 4:58 pm

The Chetco Bar Fire burning about 5 miles from the coastal community of Brookings, Oregon, has in some ways redefined the role of the local school district's superintendent.

The Brookings-Harbor School District is the closest school district to the nation's top priority fire. That proximity is why district superintendent Sean Gallagher regularly attends morning briefings with firefighters and fire managers.

It's also why his middle and high schools are housing a 500-person crew of firefighters camped out on the baseball, soccer and football fields where students were supposed to return in two weeks.

"I've teased some of my colleagues saying, 'Hey, I think we've missed something in the superintendent training curriculum on incident management,'" Gallagher said.

The first day of school at the district has been set back by at least a week because of the 100,000-plus-acre fire that remains zero percent contained. Evacuation orders have displaced a third of Gallagher's more than 220 employees. Emergency crews placed the entire town of Brookings on alert Friday to be ready to evacuate. 

"Working at a school district is, in my opinion, a mission field where your responsibility is to provide stability for kids, families and the community," Gallagher said. "And when your life is unstable or unsettled to that point, it makes it very difficult.

"It's quite the emotional challenge," he added.

Yet, when you call the district number, someone always picks up. 

And when Gallagher wasn't available to talk Thursday, it was because he was meeting with fire officials. 

Gallagher and a small number of employees, some who have themselves been displaced by the fire, return to the district office every day.

"I'm here to say," Gallagher said. "But no, I never dreamt I would be in the middle of something like this." 

Brookings-Harbor School District has three schools — one elementary, middle and high school — that together serve just a little less than 1,700 students. The district office is right in the middle of all three schools. 

To get to the elementary school, Gallagher walks across the street. To get to the high school, he walks across the parking lot. He can watch football games from his office window.  

"You know, you're called to do what you're called to do when you're called to do it," Gallagher said. "I just happened to be in the chair that enabled the school district to be collaborative and work together and help to make a difference." 

Gallagher said that's the kind of community that exists in Brookings — one that has a "if you ask for it, you're going to get it" kind of attitude. 

There are, also, uncertainties as the Chetco Bar Fire threatens to grow over the weekend.

While school is set to start again Sept. 12, fire officials aren't anticipating containment on the fire until at least October. People's minds can drift quickly to "what ifs," Gallagher said.

"Let's just take it one day at a time," he said.

For now, Gallagher will continue to show up to his office where, outside his window, hundreds of firefighters have set up tents to rest between deployments — a daily reminder of a fire that could grow too big for this small community.

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