As more than 100 wildfires burned across the West, a blaze exploded this week in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area that has left Oregon’s outdoorsy residents in a state of public mourning.
The Eagle Creek fire burned through their beloved backyard wilderness, blowing smoke into downtown Portland and raining a powder of white ash across the region. The blaze threatened the city’s primary water supply at Bull Run Reservoir, and its rapid march toward a metropolitan area turned it into the nation’s top-priority wildfire.
But across Oregon, where educators boast about putting 1 million children through wilderness training known as Outdoor School, citizens focused their bereavement on the fate of a vast network of timberline trails and magnificent waterfalls. The Eagle Creek conflagration has chewed through 33,382 acres of scenic treasure.
“I think it’s appropriate to mourn,” said Tom Cramblett, the 66-year-old mayor of Cascade Locks, a town of 1,200 largely displaced by the fire. “You mourn for things, but you gotta move on.”
Cramblett, whose family put down roots in Oregon in the 1800s, operates tour-boat excursions on the Columbia River. He’s looking forward to seeing what comes from patches of forest stripped of the state’s signature Douglas firs. He thinks the fire will reveal towers of basalt and other visually arresting geological features.
“It’s gonna be a different kind of beauty,” Cramblett said, “a whole new thing for a whole new generation.”
But the top elected official representing the wildlands on fire sounded a less enthusiastic note.
“It’s been a very sad, sad situation,” said Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury.
“The Columbia River Gorge is the nation’s scenic area,” she said. “You can talk to people from all over the country who’ve been there even just once, swimming in a waterfall or hiking through the trails. The love and the awe and the majestic value of that area are immeasurable. … And now it will be different. It won’t be the same.”
Oregon State Police suspect that a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Wash., accidentally ignited the wildfire Saturday after he tossed fireworks in Eagle Creek. The blaze soon joined with another fire in the scenic area, burning since July 4, and jumped the Columbia River, sparking new fires in Washington.
Social media lighted up with scorn for the unnamed teen suspected of causing the blaze.
“Not to be dramatic or anything but the kids who threw those fireworks at eagle creek are the worst human beings on earth,” declared one Twitter user.
Another tweeted: “Punishment should include meeting with everybody in hospital due to smoke, who lost work due [to] evacuation, with lost or damaged homes ... and then be required to work helping people rebuild. And THEN go to prison for arson. Oh, and send the bill to their parents.”
Many observers, including some of the firefighters trying to corral the Eagle Creek fire, thought the shaming went too far.
“I’m not in favor of lynch-mob mentality,” said Cramblett, pointing out that wildfires have devastated the gorge every few generations for as long as anyone can remember.
“This was going to happen — by lightning or whatever. … You cannot have that much forest out there without something eventually happening,” he said.
Portland author Peter Ames Carlin and his wife took their three kids and dog, Ralph, to the Eagle Creek trail on Saturday for a day hike up to Punch Bowl Falls, a waterfall and swimming hole 2 miles into the forest. The spot teemed with sorority girls in bikinis and families enjoying the crystal-clear water, he said.
When they began to hike back, they discovered the trail had been overrun by wildfire. They were among 150 people cut off by the fast-paced blaze, forcing them to hike farther into the woods, where they were flanked by patches of fire. The group, which Carlin said was organized by a retired Air Force sergeant, bedded down in the forest about midnight and pressed on toward safety about 5 a.m. Sunday.
Sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and U.S. Forest Service rangers had monitored their movements and were waiting for the group when it reached Wahtum Lake on Sunday. They had hiked more than 20 miles out of their way to reach safety and were ferried out of the woods in school buses.
It was only after Carlin and his family reached Portland that it dawned on him that they were among the last group of people who would ever hike the Eagle Creek trail before the wildfire rearranged the terrain.
Carlin was back in Portland on Thursday, where he lamented the inferno and its impact on the city.
“The city is just choked with smoke,” he said. “Ash is falling. We’re just grateful that our ashes weren’t among them.”
Low clouds and increased humidity on Thursday turned the Eagle Creek fire docile. Along Interstate 84, which remains closed to public traffic from Troutdale to Hood River, the hillsides smoldered.
But the 911 firefighters now battling the blaze have come to expect the worst. They worry that an influx of dry air, with winds picking up in the typically gusty gorge, could spell disaster.
So far, they’ve been able to contain only 7% of the fire, and then only by building earthen barriers and removing underbrush around more than 100 homes on the northern edge of the ladle-shaped burn area.
Crews are prepared for the long haul, said Rich Tyler, a veteran firefighter and spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“The reality is, we’re firefighters,” Tyler said, pointing out that all 74 agencies doing battle with the stubborn wildfire are from Oregon. “This is an important fire for us because this is our recreational playground. It’s our backyard. If we’re gonna be anywhere, we want to be here fighting this fire.”
Denson is a special correspondent