Local crews return from Eagle Creek Fire
After four days helping to protect the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge from the Eagle Creek Fire, Randy Hoodenpyl of Gaston's Rural Fire Protection District is home and on vacation this week.
The veteran firefighter is hoping he won't get assigned to battle another big fire anytime soon, but if a call comes, he'll answer it.
Hoodenpyl was part of a Washington County team effort to quell the blaze in the Columbia River Gorge that made national news earlier this month. His task force was on duty fighting the Eagle Creek Fire from Sept. 5 to 7.
As of Tuesday, the blaze had scorched 35,588 acres and was 11 percent contained, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshal. A half day of light rain and milder temperatures over the weekend helped keep the flames from spreading further, and the OSFM sent some fire crews home due to the diminished risk to structures.
Crews from Washington County — including firefighters from Forest Grove, Banks, Cornelius, Gaston and Hillsboro — had assembled into three task forces charged with protecting homes and businesses from the fire after it broke out Sept. 2.
Banks alone sent four firefighters and two pieces of equipment to the gorge, officials said.
Altogether, about 75 local firefighters helped create "defensible spaces" along the I-84 corridor and up into the hills by clearing brush, installing sprinkler systems and performing other tasks that kept the flames at bay, said Forest Grove Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer.
Gaston firefighter Matt Aalto was part of the first task force, which spent a week shoring up fire-threatened structures up and down I-84. That group came back Monday, Sept. 11, after successfully defending "many, many homes," he said.
One particularly heroic effort near Cascade Locks sticks with Aalto. As his group noticed an "extremely aggressive" fire approaching a home and four outbuildings, they sprang into action.
"In less than a minute it hit blackberry bushes and it was off and running," Aalto recalled. "The entire task force was on it … it was our most intense moment."
After firefighters quelled the blaze, saving the house, one of the homeowners asked whether they'd been able to save a large oak tree on the property.
"Their daughter had gotten married under that big oak tree just two weeks before," said Aalto. "It meant a lot to them that it was still standing."
Conditions heading into this week looked increasingly positive.
"The fire has basically blown on top of itself," Nemeyer said. "When the winds shifted they were pushing the fire east to west, and then west to east."
One of the local groups — including Gaston and Forest Grove firefighters — was assigned specifically to protect the lodge adjacent to Multnomah Falls.
Supplying equipment, including water tenders and brush rigs, was a key component of their contribution.
"In my whole career this was probably the only time I'll get to supply water to an effort by Portland Fire. It's a long way from Gaston to Portland," said Hoodenpyl, who had been to Multnomah Lodge only once before the fire.
He and his crewmates, including Micah Poling and Mark Johnston, operated their water tender while Portland firefighters sprayed the water up and on top of the lodge.
Johnston and Hoodenpyl spent the first 36 hours of their deployment working non-stop. "There wasn't anyone to relieve us until Wednesday morning," said Hoodenpyl.
Poling, Johnston and Hoodenpyl all came home last Thursday. Some FGF&R crew members returned home around 6:30 p.m. Sunday and another crew came home Monday morning.
Nemeyer breathed a sigh of relief Monday that no large fires had broken out in western Washington County over the last week and a half but said he was comfortable with staffing levels at the Forest Grove fire station while some colleagues were in the gorge.
"The nice thing about the partnerships we have with other agencies — if you're a volunteer with Forest Grove, you're also a volunteer with Gaston and Cornelius — is that we don't have to empty the barn. We still have enough people in the system to make a reasonable response."
Nemeyer said he felt good about helping Portland and Multnomah County with their mission.
"They were burning," he said. "We have to deal with what's at hand."