Refugees fleeing the flames of Eagle Creek blaze
Sally King, a 75-year-old retiree, tears up when she discusses what she had to leave behind when she packed up her most precious belongings to flee the encroaching flames of the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge.
"I've done a lot of crochet in my life. That stayed. A lot of books and dishes" were left behind, she said, choking up, her voice trailing off.
King, who lives near Latourell Falls just east of Crown Point, left her home on 16 acres between 2 and 3 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5. "We went through the levels (of evacuation warnings) Level 1, Level 2, Level 3. They prepared us with Level 1. I believe in following orders, so we got ready."
She said she couldn't sleep anyway and so in the middle of the night as the evacuation hit Level 3, which is mandatory, she and her roommates made their way to the Red Cross shelter in the Mt. Hood Community College gym. King got there despite mobility issues and was resting in her wheelchair at the shelter.
King has a single mom and her two children living with her, and the foursome took off in two vehicles with their three dogs. She had to leave behind five feral cats she cares for.
"I made sure they were outside," she said. "I didn't want them to burn in a structure fire."
King admits to a "flurry" of emotions.
"Part of me is angry, part of me is very upset. All I want to do is cry about it."
Her emotional state isn't reflected in her appearance. King's striking grey hair is swept up in a top knot, her lipstick is perfectly applied and even her manicure survived unscathed in the harrowing escape.
The fire is "all around" her house.
"I don't know how close," she said. "We are right in the line of the fire."
The Eagle Creek Fire, which started in the canyon near the town of Cascade Locks, was first reported Saturday afternoon, Sept. 2. It quickly expanded to more than 20,000 acres, merged with another fire called Indian Creek Fire and by Thursday morning had already burned more than 32,000 acres.
The blaze closed down Interstate 84 from Troutdale to Hood River and the Union Pacific rail line. The Coast Guard closed 20 miles of the Columbia River to boat traffic. Hundreds of homes in the Gorge have been evacuated.
King said her brother packed and took some pictures and family heirlooms to safety.
"I'm a pack rat. I have a lot of treasures," she said. "I had to look at each item and decide what was replaceable and what wasn't. I have lots of precious things people have given me." She took "photos mainly" and "things you just can't duplicate."
She has no idea how long she, her roommates and dogs will be at the shelter. She is anxious, but not bored.
"They are serving food all the time. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner. They've got a puzzle to work on, but I haven't done that yet," she said. "Actually the days go pretty fast."
She is grateful for all the volunteers. "They do the cooking and cleaning up. Boy, do I appreciate that. They are so darn sweet."
"I don't know anything about my house," she admitted. "I'm guardedly optimistic. But I have to be prepared for the worst, too. We survived the 1991 fire (in the Gorge)."
"The No. 1 thing is that it's not as easy to go through as when you see this on TV," she said. "It isn't as easy to live through."
How you can help
The Red Cross has helped out about 250 evacuees from the Eagle Creek Fire in shelters at Mt. Hood Community College and in Stevenson, Wash., said Monique Dugaw, regional director for communications for the Red Cross Cascades Region (redcross.org/local/oregon). While good intentions of folks who want to bring by food or bottled water are appreciated, she said the best way to help is through financial donations. "We can then purchase what is needed."
The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge (gorgefriends.org) has set up a donation page for the Hood River County Search and Rescue, the group that rescued more than 150 hikers stranded Saturday, Sept. 2.