Every summer, Portland watches as parts of the state turn to tinder and catch fire, spurring frantic efforts to limit damage and save property. On Monday, those fires literally hit home, as the ashy remnants of one of the state’s most treasured natural areas began to fall lightly on the city.
The maddening events that apparently began the Eagle Creek Fire currently imperiling homes and habitat in the Columbia River Gorge have been loosely sketched out through witness reports. A Portland resident named Liz FitzGerald says she was hiking a portion of the Eagle Creek Trail on Saturday, September 2, when she saw a group of teens throw a smoke bomb down the mountainside (authorities believe a 15-year-old Vancouver resident started the blaze).
FitzGerald ran down the trail, and reported the act to US Forest Service personnel. It was too late.
On Sunday evening, officials said the fire was burning intermittently over nearly 4,800 acres. By the following morning, that area had more than doubled, as winds sparked conflagrations miles west, and even across the Columbia River into Washington’s Skamania County.
On Tuesday, as smoke and ash continued to choke Portland’s air and partially blot out the sun, fire officials were still unsure how far the fire would spread. A portion of Troutdale had been put on notice to prepare for possible evacuation. Hundreds of residents of Cascade Locks, Warrendale, parts of Corbett, and more had already been ordered to leave. The Red Cross reported more than 140 people had spent the night in its impromptu Gresham shelter or slept in vehicles nearby.
Fortunately, despite all that displacement, fire officials on Tuesday afternoon weren’t aware of a single home destroyed by the fires. Firefighters had also battled back flames that threatened the Multnomah Falls Lodge. Nearby, the Oneonta Tunnel had caught fire. There was no telling where the next bout of flame, ignited by smoldering ashes, would sprout up.
“It’s the ash fall that creates lots of issues with this fire,” Lt. Damon Simmons, a spokesperson for the state fire marshal, told reporters early Tuesday afternoon. “I haven’t seen ash fall like this in my 18 years as a firefighter in the Portland metro area.”
Almost as disheartening as the potential scope of the fire is this question: What will remain of Oregon’s beloved gorge when the blaze is finally defeated?
Some gorge boosters are putting off mulling over the possibilities.
“It’s so early right now and the fire is still growing and spreading,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “Our primary concern is people’s safety.”
But concern over the sights of one of Oregon’s crown jewels had “kind of obsessed” Paul Gerald, a local author and trails enthusiast who has written guides to hikes in the gorge. With firefighters battling blazes near famous waypoints like Vista House and along some of his favorite trails, at least one outcome seemed clear to Gerald.
“The forest that you’ve been hiking in up there—even if it’s not completely burned to the ground—is gone,” he said Tuesday. “This is something that in our lifetimes is never going to look the same as it did yesterday.”
Gerald was quick to note there’s still not much clarity on where fires are burning. Though officials said the blaze has a 10,000-acre footprint, not all of that will be engulfed.
Still, this will mean monumental change. Gerald rattled off a list of trails—popular hikes like Herman Creek, Multnomah and Wahkeena Falls, Eagle Creek, and Angel’s Rest—whose fate he doesn’t expect to know for months. He believes uncertainty will likely stop officials from re-opening those until potentially next year.
“These fires can keep smoldering in the brush,” Gerald said. “In the roots of trees. You may think it’s out and a big gust of wind comes two weeks later and it’s up again.”
When the trails do open, burnt portions will see a heightened risk of landslides. But Gerald says he’ll be among the first to venture onto them. He’s curious to see which of his favorite spots will still be around, and which have been irrevocably changed.
“I admit it is particularly depressing to me today,” he said. “It occurred to me I am sweeping up bits of Eagle Creek from my living room.”