Off Topic

The Fire at Eagle Creek

Last fall, a massive blaze ripped through Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, stranding hikers and driving people from their homes. One year later, the earth is recovering, but the fire still haunts locals’ dreams.

The fire that tore through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area began on a cliff’s edge above Eagle Creek, just up the trail from the oldest national forest campground in America. In 1916, it took most of a day to drive a Model T from Portland, Oregon, to experience the beauty of this wilderness. A hundred years later, it takes less than an hour to cover that same distance. The hike along Eagle Creek to Punch Bowl Falls is a bucket-list destination. On a busy summer day, 600 people, possibly more, climb the trail to swim at the falls, but it’s impossible to know for sure; there are no permits to keep track of how many people are on the trail at any given time. Websites list the hike to Punch Bowl Falls as “easy” because it is only two miles long and doesn’t cover a significant elevation gain, but at points the trail is little more than a foot wide, blasted out of the basalt, and can be traversed only by gripping a cable screwed to the cliff’s face. The views are breathtaking: in the spring, bright-purple larkspur bloom from the dripping moss on one side of the trail; on the other, the drop-off tumbles 100 feet down to the creek. Unleashed dogs fall from the cliff every summer.

Julie Prentice, the summer host for the Eagle Creek Recreation Area, who wore a ball cap pulled down over her fiery red hair and agreed to park her RV on national forest land in exchange for keeping the bathrooms clean and answering dozens of questions a day, worried about the teenagers who hiked to Punch Bowl Falls in flip-flops, or the tourists who headed up the trail in heels. One even tried to push a stroller. She’d once talked a mother out of carrying her eight-day-old baby up the cliff, and she was amazed that more people didn’t get hurt. The Hood River County Sheriff’s Office gets called in regularly for search-and-rescue efforts in the area; 25 percent of all their calls have traditionally come from Eagle Creek.

The trails were always crowded on Labor Day weekend, a last summer fling, and local businesses in nearby Cascade Locks, a town near the Eagle Creek trailhead, filled their walk-in refrigerators with perishable food. The three-day weekend provided the equivalent of three months’ worth of winter income—the buffer they’d need to survive the cold, dark months. It was a time to keep an eye out for rowdy tourists: just the week before, cops had pulled over a group of teenagers for throwing firecrackers into the Eagle Creek trailhead parking lot.

The summer of 2017 had been an unusually hot one for a part of Oregon considered to be a temperate rain forest, and by early September, a fire that had been smoldering since the Fourth of July weekend had closed trails at Indian Creek, seven miles up the mountain. The steep slopes were covered by loose rock and deemed unsafe for firefighters, but the fire had progressed slowly, creeping through the dense, moist undergrowth of a mature forest, singeing the woody shrubs but leaving the canopy undisturbed as helicopters and planes dropped up to 100,000 gallons of water a day. An infrared scan taken early in the morning on Saturday, September 2 showed that, after two months, only 373 acres had burned. Sharon Steriti, a US Forest Service officer on a two-week detail to redirect Pacific Crest Trail hikers out of the Indian Creek burn area, was on her way to help 16 hikers navigate their way out of the area when her walkie-talkie squawked an update: a new fire had just started on the Eagle Creek Trail.


 

Just after 4:00 p.m. on September 2, a teenager tossed lit fireworks down the cliff along the Eagle Creek Trail. The tinder-dry vegetation exploded. Those on the trail who could make it through the flames raced a mile down the steep terrain as the late-afternoon wind whipped erratic gusts around the canyon and up the high ridges, igniting the tree canopy.

At 4:31 p.m., Misty Brigham, across the Columbia River on her family’s traditional fishing platform, snapped a photo from her phone of the billowing smoke. Brigham knew that the wooden platform where her father fished could easily catch fire if the flames jumped the river. The tribal nations of Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama, and Nez Perce had dipnetted salmon from the Columbia for 10,000 years, long before the first European settlers arrived to fell the forests and construct dams. Brigham knew that nothing could convince her father to leave the river during salmon season. The thought made her chest tighten. At 5:00 p.m., she snapped another photo: a crackling wall of orange had just crested the mountains.

 
The late-afternoon wind whipped erratic gusts around the canyon and up the high ridges, igniting the tree canopy.
 

As Brigham took photos, I was 30 miles downriver on Interstate 84, on my way home from Portland after helping my sister move into a new apartment. My husband lifted his hand from the steering wheel to point out a gray pillar billowing above the horizon. Cop cars raced past with sirens on, headed east on I-84. Officers tore up the Wood Village exit ramp, then jumped out and stared at the smoke through binoculars. I began searching my phone for updates, but nothing had yet been posted on news sites. Our sons, aged 9 and 11, were in the back seat with a stack of library books. We never imagined that in just a few days the entire Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge would be under evacuation orders, and that we’d be the ones piling boxes into the back of the car.

By that evening, law enforcement had made the decision to close the Eagle Creek campground. Julie Prentice kept kids and parents to one side of the road so emergency vehicles could get through. She even cleaned the toilets one last time for the news cameras that were setting up in the parking lot, and for the worried family members who had gathered at the closed trailhead: an estimated 150 people were still trapped up at Punch Bowl Falls on the wrong side of the fire. Helicopters could get close enough to drop messages, but there was no flat place to land, and the smoke was closing in, grounding aircraft. The only way out was to hike around the smoldering perimeter of the Indian Creek fire.

Sharon Steriti was unflustered by crises. She was eight miles away from the stranded hikers when she volunteered to hike through the Indian Creek burn area to join them. Night had fallen by the time Steriti found the hikers, who were inching along the trail by the light of their cell phones. The forest around them was lit by an orange glow. She told the group that it was okay to be scared, and assured them that she was in radio contact with the incident response team. At a wide spot in the trail near Tunnel Falls, she instructed everyone to hunker down, make some new friends. It was going to be an uncomfortable night’s sleep, she told them, but they were in this together. A search and rescue team was on its way and would lead them to safety when the sun rose.

That first night, the Eagle Creek fire grew to 3,000 acres. It kept mostly to the high ridges, areas of loose rock inaccessible to ground crews and susceptible to landslides, but should it descend from the mountains toward the town of Cascade Locks, firefighters would be forced to prioritize defensible space. Houses that were surrounded by low-hanging tree branches or with firewood stacked on their decks could be secured only if time allowed. And if the fire made it all the way down to the river, and the wind kicked up, the fire’s spread could accelerate beyond imagining.


 

The Cascade Mountains rise in a snowcapped wall from British Columbia to California. Their only sea-level passage is where they meet the Columbia River Gorge. Winds roar down the narrow passage, just as the Missoula floods did at the end of the Ice Age, when gigantic walls of water carved and then scoured the canyon, leaving behind the exposed cones of extinct volcanoes like rough-hewn pillars. In winter, cold winds from the east bring freezing rain and gusts of over 100 miles an hour. In summer, warm dry winds transform the gorge into a kiteboarding and windsurfing paradise.

Ali High, nine months pregnant, had been folding baby clothes in Cascade Locks when the plume of smoke erupted three miles behind her house. She and her husband had left Southern California because the Columbia Gorge seemed like a safer place to start a family—no earthquakes, no tornadoes. For High, a graphic designer, the town of Cascade Locks held a rustic appeal. There was one grocery store, an elementary school with 64 students, two pubs, a soft-serve drive-in, a fish market; the population was 1,166. Hiking trails began just behind their house. High’s hospital bag was already packed for her scheduled induction, but she kept glancing out the window as the smoke thickened. Her first inkling that Oregon was not quite as serene as she’d imagined had been the unexpectedly bitter winter nine months earlier. Their son had been conceived during an ice storm. Would he be born during a fire? She pushed the thought aside. The knock on the door from the sheriff’s office came at 3:00 a.m. It was time to go.

As Sunday dawned over Cascade Locks, bleak and smoky, evacuees filed across the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State. A thousand years earlier, landslides had created a temporary natural bridge across the Columbia River, almost a mile across, and this 1926 steel cantilever bridge had been named after that geological marvel. Few believed the fire would jump the river, even if the winds rose. Vacationers at the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few miles downriver in North Bonneville, Washington, played through on the green while across the river the Oregon mountains burned. The town, with a population of around 1,000, had very nearly sold off its fire truck and closed its fire station’s doors less than a year earlier. Temporary shelters had been set up for evacuees at the Skamania County Fairgrounds in the Washington town of Stevenson. Jean Foster, a self-proclaimed animal lover, asked John Carlson, the area’s emergency services coordinator, how she could help. She was ushered into an empty barn next to Rock Creek that would soon be full to overflowing with close to 300 evacuated animals: rabbits, distressed cats, dozens of chickens, three unruly goats that needed to be walked, homesick dogs, three pigs, a horse abandoned by its owner (though it was later claimed), a cockatiel, ducks, and a tarantula.

By noon on Sunday, the trapped hikers had made it safely off the trail and were reunited with worried family members at the Wahtum Lake trailhead, 14 miles and 20 hours after the fire had upended their plans. The smoke was too thick to allow aircraft to drop water on the flames, so fire crews were on the ground in Cascade Locks, and displaced business owners pooled their resources to keep the firefighters supplied with coffee, salmon chowder, and sandwiches. The smoke created a grim haze over the river. Ryan Walker, a construction worker and volunteer firefighter, studied the conditions from a roof in Skamania Landing, on the Washington side of the river. He had been trained to recognize if an inversion system was developing, and knew the damage it could unleash: if warm air pressed down from above, it could trap the smoke close to the ground, creating the perfect conditions for the fire to build up pressure, like a damper pulled out on a wood stove. And it was only a matter of time before the wind started blowing.


 

Early Monday morning, the incident response team determined that the Indian Creek fire, further up the mountains, was only 10 percent contained and had grown to 1,000 acres. The Eagle Creek fire, a quarter mile from the town of Cascade Locks, was 0 percent contained and covered 3,200 acres. The winds were expected to start that afternoon, with gusts of up to 25 miles per hour.

Interstate 84, on the Oregon side of the river, remained open but on standby, ready to be closed at a moment’s notice. I-84 is a corridor for commerce, as well as for those in a hurry to get from Portland to the vineyards, orchards, ranches, trails, and kiteboarding spots at the dry eastern end of the gorge. Many visitors preferred the quieter scenic Historic Columbia River Highway, dedicated in 1916, with its stone barriers and bridges inspired by the scenic highways of Europe. The towns along this road are scattered and independent, clusters of homes tucked among trees and waterfalls: Warrendale, Dodson, the iconic stone-and-timber Multnomah Falls Lodge, Bridal Veil, the Angel’s Rest Trail, Latourell, and the art nouveau Vista House, 733 feet above the Columbia River, from which one could see, on clear days, the full panoramic sweep of the gorge.

With 1,250 households, the town of Corbett, 20 miles downriver from Eagle Creek, is by far the largest of the communities along the highway, and the Corbett volunteer fire department had already responded to the call for aid that came from Cascade Locks around noon on Saturday. On Monday, a truck and a five-person volunteer crew drove down to defend the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, three miles from the Eagle Creek trailhead, before the wind developed a mind of its own and made evacuating human residents the far more urgent priority.

By 8:45 p.m., the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office issued a “Level 3” mandatory evacuation order for Dodson and Warrendale, seven miles west of Eagle Creek, and I-84 was closed. Bridal Veil, an area 15 miles west along the historic highway, was declared a “Level 2” evacuation zone, which meant that residents should start packing and be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Residents herded agitated horses into trailers in the dark as a warm wind tore down the gorge. Bridal Veil had been established in 1886, but all that remained of the once-bustling logging town were the Pioneer Cemetery and the post office, whose doors remained open only because of a yearly influx of wedding invitations awaiting a novelty postmark. Only 45 post office boxes were still in use. The 1902 Palmer Mill fire, followed by a second mill fire in 1936, had reduced Bridal Veil to a few houses and farms, serene Bridal Veil Lodge, the Bridal Veil Lakes wedding venue, and the convent.

 

 

The Franciscan sisters, in their plain brown habits, packed quickly. They worried over the cats and the goats, until they were assured that temporary homes would be found for them. The sisters had purchased a decrepit 1915 Italianate mansion in Bridal Veil in the 1970s, after the mansion had been abandoned for a decade. The floor had been buckled by water damage, and the grounds were littered with bags of moldering trash, five wrecked cars, and two refrigerators, but over the years their restoration work had transformed the convent into a leafy retreat. Two of the nuns were in fragile health; even if their home did not survive the fire, they hoped one day to be buried beside their sisters in the small cemetery at the foot of Angel’s Rest.

All that night and into the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 5, the fire leapt across the mountains like a living creature. Resin-packed conifer crowns exploded and snapped off in the intense heat, flinging lit branches ahead of the fire’s edge. One ridge, then another, gave way to flames. The Indian Creek fire and the Eagle Creek fire merged into an incendiary crown that spiked above the gorge. Debris flung by the fiery tornado-like wind splashed into the Columbia River, and live embers whirled two miles through the air to land on Archer Mountain, a mile inland from the river on the Washington side, touching off an unexpected round of emergency evacuations across the gorge. Ryan Walker, the firefighter who’d worried about the inversion system from the moment he recognized it, joined a team of volunteers to scout the shoreline near North Bonneville and put out spot fires as soon as they started. A two-foot-long charcoal spear landed, still smoking, on the golf course, and the North Bonneville Fire Department salvaged it in memory of that sleepless night.

In 38 years of fighting fires, Dave Flood had never seen anything equal to the Eagle Creek conflagration. As the fire chief of Corbett, he had trained in wildland firefighting, but this was the kind of event that happened in drier states like Arizona and Colorado. Brush fires, which stayed low on the forest floor, could be put out without any real danger. But once a fire got up into the canopy, becoming a crown fire, all the water in the world couldn’t put it out. It was the kind of fire he’d seen on videos, never in real life, with a plume of smoke so full of particulate matter that it collapsed under its own weight and fell onto the firefighters like a nuclear blast.

Stones ricocheted down the cliffs from 1,000 feet up as the Corbett firefighters evacuated the last remaining residents of Bridal Veil and Latourell. Chief Flood knew that a misstep could put his crew in jeopardy. His training, for the first time, felt urgent. If the truck got trapped behind a landslide, his crew might be forced to run for their lives. It was time to get out.

The wild animals, too, sensed the danger. Late Monday night, a herd of elk clustered in the meadow by our house, restless and wary, huddled in the open, away from the trees. We were west of the fire, still in a Level 2 evacuation zone, but even then it was 90 degrees at midnight, and charred leaves that the fire had carried for miles floated down as we loaded our car with our six new baby chicks and a sick kitten, while our dog circled our ankles, anxious not to be left behind. A mile down the road, a neighbor snapped a photo of a cougar with what looked like a coyote dangling from its jaws. We woke our boys at 2:00 a.m. to explain that the fire was closer than we’d thought. As we waited for the knock on the door, we could hear the thunder of horse trailers evacuating.

Kim Mosiman, who had founded a horse rescue in Corbett, set up a table in the elementary school parking lot and coordinated with the Regional County Disaster Organization. Strangers across Oregon and Washington drove in with trailers for transporting livestock and offered safe pasture. Kim knew which of her volunteers at Sound Equine Solutions could stay calm in a crisis and who would be able to handle an animal in distress.

At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the fire seemed unstoppable. Smoke and ash rained down on the Corbett fire crew as they pulled into the empty parking lot of the Vista House, the historic 1918 art nouveau rotunda with views from five sides, to try to scout the path of the fire. The glowing red edge was just a few miles down the Historic Columbia River Highway when the smoke began to clear. The winds had shifted. The fire appeared to have halted at Palmer Mill Road—the same place it had stopped in the 1902 fire. Burning branches and tree trunks rolled down into Bridal Veil Creek, sputtering to a simmer. The valley marked the beginning of a shift in vegetation: from resinous firs and hemlocks to deciduous alders and big-leaf maple, with green leaves that slowed down the fire’s progress. The wind-fueled fire had apparently jumped 13 miles in 16 hours, but for now, as the wind died down, it looked like we’d been given a reprieve.

It took two weeks before I-84 reopened, on September 15, and residents in Level 3 evacuation zones were allowed to return home. Even then, with 54 engines, 12 helicopters, and 967 firefighters assigned to the Eagle Creek Fire, the blaze was only 28 percent contained. Because the burn had been so erratic, there remained dry, untouched areas of forest next to smoldering trees, and the wind was still shifting directions, moving the fire first toward the Bull Run watershed, which supplied drinking water to the entire city of Portland, then toward the orchards in Hood River. The first spattering of rain in mid-September was greeted with intense relief, but it took until the last day of November before cooling temperatures and steady rains allowed the incident command team to consider the conflagration contained.

 
It was the kind of fire he’d never seen in real life, with a plume of smoke so full of particulate matter that it collapsed under its own weight and fell onto the firefighters like a nuclear blast.
 

As the smoke cleared, stories emerged. Firefighters had watched the fire jump overhead across the narrow canyon behind the Multnomah Falls Lodge, three miles east of Bridal Veil. The lodge, one of the crown jewels of the historic highway, had been built in 1925 at the base of famously photogenic falls that plunge 600 feet behind a graceful bridge. It had escaped unscathed during the 1991 fire that swept along the top of the falls—a photograph of that blaze is framed above the bar, although it now seemed tame in comparison to what had just unfolded in the gorge. Firefighters described how fire had poured down either side of Multnomah Falls, creating an amphitheater of flames. Burning trees had tumbled 600 feet over the cliff’s edge and destroyed the Shady Creek Bridge. Flames had licked up to the edges of a damp circle of water pumped from the creek, the last line of defense around the stately lodge.

Chris Shaw, the lodge’s executive chef, was one of the first civilians allowed back onto the closed freeway, more than a week before it officially reopened. Obligated by his contract never to leave the lodge unattended, Shaw and his wife had camped out in sleeping bags during ice storms in previous years. He had never before been forced to abandon his post.

In gratitude, Shaw put together meals at the lodge for the fire crew over an entire week, beginning on September 6, explaining that it was one of the absolute honors of his life to feed the people who had saved this building. For long, quiet months that fall, before crews arrived to repair the smoke damage, Shaw and his assistant general manager sat at a table in a small room near the front of the lodge to oversee the restoration. He was instructed to keep FEMA’s mobile app open on his phone and watch for alerts about possible landslides. Multnomah Falls was usually busy with visitors who drove up the gorge to enjoy the yellow and gold leaves of autumn; on a beautiful September day, the lodge could easily serve 300 people. Instead, this year, with no tourists in sight, herons and deer wandered undisturbed through the parking lot. A bear was spotted along the closed historic highway. Eventually, chipmunks took over the empty dining room.


 

On a quiet Tuesday morning this summer, one week after the Fourth of July, the orange safety cones that had blocked the Angel’s Rest parking area have been temporarily pulled aside, and the dirt road is full of a dozen cars and a van full of shovels, pickaxes, and hard hats provided by Trailkeepers of Oregon, a trail-restoration organization. Elaine Keavney, a board member and crew leader, began guiding crews up the ruined trail as soon as land managers deemed that it was safe to begin restoration work. Today, she asks how many of those who have driven out for the seven-hour shift are first-timers. Of the 18 people here, 3 raise their hands. There are others here who have signed up for trail work more than 30 times.

Almost a year after the Eagle Creek fire torched 48,000 acres, the Historic Columbia River Highway remains closed past Bridal Veil because of landslides, but the impact of the fire is still visible even from a car traveling 65 miles per hour on I-84. Blackened tree trunks loom over patches of bright-green undergrowth: thimbleberry, nitrogen-fixing sword ferns, and big-leaf maple stems sprouting from stumps.

Elaine double-checks paperwork and glances at everyone’s shoes to make sure they are rugged enough for the work. The hazards on the still-closed trail are no joke. Hard hats must be kept on at all times, even when searching for a “facilitree” for a bathroom break. Before the fire, the loose scree of rock was held together by a thick web of moss, but the moss went up fast, glowing red for days. Without that natural glue to hold the mountain in place, a rock kicked down the talus slope could set off a landslide, dislodging fallen trees and turning them into potentially lethal torpedoes. Elaine asks how many of the volunteers have had first-aid training.

Pete Reagan, a retired family doctor in Portland, is among the three who raise their hands. He had been hiking in Switzerland when the Eagle Creek fire broke out and had followed the updates from a distance, with increasing dismay. The iconic Angel’s Rest Trail, with its 270-degree views of the gorge, had been one of his yearly pilgrimage sites since 1971, just after he’d moved to Oregon. Watching it burn had transformed Pete from a trail user to a trail steward, in the language of the Trailkeepers, an organization that started small in 2007 but was flooded with new volunteers after the 2017 fire.

 
With no tourists in sight, herons and deer wandered undisturbed through the lodge’s parking lot. A bear was spotted along the closed historic highway. Eventually, chipmunks took over the empty dining room.
 

Guy Hamblen, another Trailkeepers crew leader, is in charge of rock work for the day, and he explains that a select team will have the job of heaving a 600-pound rock into place with levers and a sling. The extended closure of this trail has allowed forest managers to undertake erosion-control measures and incorporate switchback reinforcements that had been a growing concern for decades. The fire added new challenges—slow-smoldering roots of trees collapsed below the ground and the spring rains scoured away whole sections of the trail, creating “hell holes”—but much of the underlying damage was cumulative. With an estimated 1 million year-round hikers on the Angel’s Rest Trail, it had been a challenge to stay ahead of the necessary repairs.

A few miles up the historic highway from the Angel’s Rest trailhead, perched on a lip of basalt overlooking the grand sweep of the Columbia River, tourists swarm the information table in the marble-floored Vista House. Ed Murphy and Carol Addleman, retired volunteers who banter with the ease of a comedy duo, are happy to explain to visitors from as far away as Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Europe, and Australia that the elaborate rotunda was originally intended as a restroom stop, and had been nicknamed “the $100,000 Outhouse” when it went wildly over budget in 1918, but most people just want to know why so many waterfalls are still closed. Many have never heard of the Eagle Creek fire.

A man who has driven across the river from Washington State to show off the gorge to a friend visiting from New York is irritated that he couldn’t find a parking spot at Multnomah Falls and had to circle eight miles out of his way to turn around. The volunteers offer sympathy and point out which trails and waterfalls are still open, then search for the schedule for the shuttle bus to Multnomah Falls from Rooster Rock State Park, less than a 15-minute drive away.

When they can find a parking spot, tourists still flock to the reopened Multnomah Falls. The blackened remains of a hollow tree greet visitors who climb the footpath to the waterfall, and the trail is closed beyond the bridge, but the lush green undergrowth is returning to the singed slopes. Lovers take selfies. Kids cling to the guardrail or lift up their faces to feel the sting of cold droplets. As soon as the historic highway reopens, it will be just as crowded as before.

Fireworks are illegal on public lands, and bottle rockets, Roman candles, and firecrackers are illegal across the state of Oregon, but permitted sellers in both Washington and Oregon are allowed to sell approved fireworks. Over the Fourth of July weekend, three separate fires broke out along the Columbia River Gorge. All three were the result of careless human actions, but being within the reach of fire hoses were quickly put out. The possibility of yet another wind-fueled conflagration is never far from the minds of residents of the gorge.

“We talk about the fire 24-7,” Addleman, the Vista House volunteer, admits between inundations of tourists. “When we go home, we dream about the fire.”


 

The question “Are we loving the gorge to death?” is one that surfaces frequently in discussions about the future of the Columbia River Gorge. The legal provisions of the act that designated the gorge a National Scenic Area, in 1986, created a Gorge Commission to work alongside the Forest Service to protect and enhance the area’s resources: scenic, cultural, natural, and recreational. The resulting coalition requires deft coordination with six different counties across two state lines and four tribal nations, and represents a broad spectrum of stakeholders.

To protect the Columbia River Gorge against the cumulative adverse effects of human impact requires a partnership between windsurfers, wineries, Pacific Crest Trail hikers, farmers, First Peoples (who have sovereign fishing rights), and the rural communities that staff the volunteer fire departments and visitor centers and call in fireworks infractions.

It isn’t always an easy conversation. On July 10, the Oregon Department of Transportation, seizing the opportunity provided by the Eagle Creek fire closures, announced a controversial—albeit temporary—plan to convert the section of the historic highway that winds past Multnomah Falls to a one-way bike- and pedestrian-friendly road system starting in September 2018. Local residents and business owners worried that insufficient forethought had been given to the impact this would have on already crowded parking lots and that it would do little to ease congestion. Moreover, Multnomah Falls Lodge would, under the proposed plan, be significantly more difficult to access from the Cascade Locks fire station—and, once again, September is on track to be the month with the greatest fire danger. According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, 33 percent of the state was considered extremely dry in August of 2017; a year later, 95 percent of the state is now deemed extremely dry. (The land itself had the last word: landslides delayed the one-way proposal until spring.)

Meanwhile, tourism increases every year. At least 30,000 people move to Portland each year, and the gorge is an easy day trip. Permits are not required on gorge trails, and the “trail ambassador” program is an attempt to keep tabs on the people who move through popular trailheads on weekends and help redistribute the hikers. Kevin Gorman, the executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, estimates that 80 percent of the area’s tourists visit only 20 percent of the gorge.

Julie Prentice, who in one day lost both her job as the Eagle Creek Recreation Area host and her place to live, signed up this summer for a shift at Dry Creek Falls as a volunteer trail ambassador. Between handing out Smokey Bear stickers to kids, she picks up 65 cigarette butts from the parking area and fields questions from disappointed hikers about why the trails are still closed. She explains to them that a big fire hadn’t happened in the gorge for a century, and that it has cleansed the earth. It’s important for humans to take a break and let Mother Nature do her work. Eagle Creek needed to rest. People get that.

Early assessment of the Eagle Creek fire showed that the damage, though it covered a broad area, was not as severe as initially feared. Only 15 percent of the forest suffered severe burns. The damage to 30 percent of the burn area was considered moderate, and the remaining 55 percent showed low-to-no burn damage. Because the winds had whipped along the ridgelines, the resulting mosaic pattern left mature, resilient trees alongside exposed burn areas, which would scatter seeds to fill in the bare patches, first with low ground cover, ideal for foraging wildlife, then deciduous trees and eventually conifers—that is, until the next fire redrew the ecological map of the forest.

 
We are to be caretakers of the land, just as the animals and all of creation have cared for us. It is our responsibility to think ahead and care for those who will follow us, generations after we are gone.
 

Fire ecologists consider the event a dark gift to the forest. Blackened tree trunks provide habitat for woodpeckers, who feast on the wood-boring beetles that otherwise might have threatened the trees. Charcoal enriches the soil. Raptors nest in the snags. Fallen trees roll into creeks and rivers, creating shadowed spawning grounds for salmon.

But it is one thing to recognize the benefits of fire, another to have lived through an evacuation. These days, the Franciscan sisters are back in residence at Bridal Veil, although the road to their home remains closed by the fire. The sisters draft lesson plans for their students at their Franciscan Montessori Earth School and gather daily in their small chapel to pray for those around the world made vulnerable by trauma, as well as for first responders and the 15-year-old boy whose life has been forever altered by fireworks. In February, the teenager pleaded guilty to the reckless burning of public and private property and was sentenced to five years of probation. He had received death threats, and the sisters pray that he will be safe from harm, and that he will use his regret for good. On the quiet path behind the convent, pink stems of bleeding hearts nod over patches of bare charcoal and blackened trees.

Ken Smith, a Wasco elder, had watched the flames race along the ridge towards his home in Corbett from across the river, trapped in traffic while friends and family rescued his horses for him. He understands that fire, treated with respect, keeps the meadows clean, allows the huckleberries and wild strawberries to flourish, and creates homes for the animals to raise their young. Life began with fire, with the sun giving us its light, but fire is not to be treated recklessly. The salmon who swim upriver when the big-leaf maple leaves beat against the ground like a drum calling them home give themselves to us as food, but in that gift is a warning not to live wastefully. We are to be caretakers of the land, just as the animals and all of creation have cared for us. It is our responsibility to think ahead and care for those who will follow us, generations after we are gone.

Ali High, the mother in Cascade Locks who had been evacuated five days before she gave birth, is not yet ready to take her son on his first hike through the charred woods, but she tells me she will do it one day. His middle name is Phoenix.

Sharon Steriti, the Forest Service ranger who led the trapped hikers to safety, is one of the few who has been able to return to Punch Bowl Falls after Eagle Creek was closed. Rockfall has slumped into the blue depths of the pool, creating a newly precarious landscape, and the cliffside trail is every bit as sobering as before—a reminder that wilderness is indeed wild—but young oaks and maples are already springing up along a dry stretch of trail razed by the fire. Sharon smiles. “Life is tenacious. The earth is incredibly resilient and will do an amazing job of healing if allowed to heal. Mother Nature wins. She gets the last word.”

Share this story

Loading more