Hope and fear mix as fires still burn
The Columbia River Gorge is almost always on the list of attractions a Portlander shows a visiting loved one. Its many trees and startlingly beautiful natural landscape is something to behold, and is commonly called the crown jewel of the area.
So when it suddenly transformed into a hellish landscape of flames and smoke, allegedly caused by a young boy carelessly tossing a firework into a bone-dry terrain on Sept. 2, natural reactions have been, understandably, anger and sadness.
Only at 7 percent containment, the crown jewel still burns, but officials say it isn't as bad as folks may envision in their minds, despite the eerie post-apocalyptic conditions it created last week as smoke filled the air, rendering the sun nearly invisible and dropping ash from the sky.
Not a 'blackened apocalypse'
Mayor of Hood River Paul Blackburn, whose town began to see evacuation levels change over the weekend (to level 1, be ready), offered hope from his view of the landscape.
"I was sort of imagining a blackened apocalypse. And in almost everywhere I went, it is not that. Now having said that, seeing plumes of smoke every quarter mile is kind of disconcerting. This is clearly a huge impact," Blackburn told reporters at a Saturday press conference at the Troutdale Police headquarters. Many Multnomah County officials also made appearances, including county Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. "But it's not been annihilated, and I do think those of us who love the gorge are going to be pretty relieved when we go out there to discover that it doesn't look like mars," Blackburn said.
The fire has taken hold of 33,682 acres, and officials don't expect complete containment until the end of the month. By the end, it could see double that acreage.
Officials and firefighters from many different agencies, including Portland Fire and Rescue, have been on the front lines of the fire to keep it contained. To the joy of many, they successfully protected the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge — a hot spot tourist attraction at the base of the falls, about 30 miles east of Portland.
The fire continued to grow on the east side last week, while to the west, threatened the small town of Corbett. In an unprecedented move, officials have kept Interstate 84 closed for days on end, as they clear out trees and fallen rock.
"They're looking at that double in size potentially with force. But … I think Mother Nature may be helping us more in the latter part of the week," said U.S. Forest Service Spokesman Paul Cerda as ash still fell from the sky and helicopters zoomed overhead. The early part of the week still plans to be hot and dry, however, and may test the work fire fighters have done already.
Cerda said Cascade Locks was doing well, and that the Bull Run Watershed was not heavily threatened by the fires.
"It's backing down at a low to moderate rate of spread, and low intensity," Cerda said.
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said they're still working to determine when those evacuated can return.
The evacuation levels are "ready" or Level 1, "set" or Level 2 and "go" Level 3. So far, four structures have been burned, while no one has been hurt.
At least 400 homes have been under a level 3 evacuation notice. Red Cross set up a disaster relief shelter at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham.
Finding refuge at the shelter were not only people who may have been displaced from their physical home, but also those who were camping or staying in RVs and vehicles.
Timothy Stopka, his fiancee, Mya and son, Bryson, 19, were all staying in what they say was a tent community on friend's land near Corbett.
At the Gresham shelter for about four days on Saturday, they say they had bus tickets back to Richmond, Virginia, the following week, but had been left to burn at the campsite, and so now they are stuck. They observed embers falling from the sky, burning holes in their tent.
"We have friends out here too … they said it would be fun," Mya said, of their visit to Oregon.
"I've been through hurricanes, I've been through tornados, and I never want to go through a fire again," Stopka said.
Dean Cole was staying with his dog Odie in a van. As he was listening to news reports about Hurricane Irma and wiping himself down with a cloth, he said he plans to go back to Corbett once he's allowed.
"It was smoky and hurting my lungs," he said.
Most people who had staying at the community college shelter were from Corbett or nearby Corbett, according to shelter manager Frank Piccola. Red Cross shelters generally see about 10 percent of the people who are required to evacuate.
"Because most people have family or they can go to hotels. It's about 10 percent of folks who are out of options, because who wants to sleep on a cot if you can sleep at the Holiday Inn," he said.
They have been seeing about 20-30 people a night, including about 15 RVs in the parking lot. The shelter has received an enormous outpouring of donations from the community, as well as two visits by the Portland Timbers soccer team. On Saturday evening, evacuees would be treated to a dinner provided by a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.
Hope on the horizon
Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, who's only been at that post for a few weeks, expressed that this has been one of the most dire fire seasons on record for their agency.
"We're nearing a lot of records … we've been at planning level 5, which is the highest planning level, for 31 straight days," he said. He said they've had 8 million acres burn across the United States, while the average is about 5.7, and that there are 80 large fires happening right now.
"That's fires greater than 100 acres, across the country. Normally for this time of year, it's about 20. So this season has been longer, and still has got a ways to go yet," Tooke said.
With a heavy tone, he told reporters that the agency is tapped out on resources, with 28,000 people fighting fires across the country. They've had to dip into other accounts for funding, and he worries about fire fighter fatigue. The Chetco Bar Fire still rages in Southern Oregon.
Senator Ron Wyden said that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue endorsed "our new approach of fire borrowing, so you wouldn't have the Forest Service budget devoured by fighting fire, and then not having money for prevention."
He's pushing President Trump's administration to include wildfire funding in any requests to Congress for disaster aid.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR, introduced a bill to Congress on Friday to expedite salvage and reforestation projects in the Columbia River Gorge.
The gorge is near and dear to Walden; he said he's a native of the gorge, was born in The Dalles and lives in Hood River.
"I think, as Oregonians and Washingtonians on both sides of the gorge we need to come together put our shoulder to the wheel and do what we do best, and that's restore an area and make it scenic again as soon as possible," he said.
Gov. Kate Brown said a top priority for her is the reopening of Interstate 84.
"Crews have been working since (Friday) to fell what we think are roughly 1,500 to 3,000 trees and remove rocks and debris to allow for safe passage on the freeway," she said. "I know this closure has been difficult for people's lives, and challengeing for Oregon's businesses. It's a priority for me to get it back open as quickly as possible as safely as possible."
While firefighters were given a bit of breathing room thanks to Mother Nature's favorable weather over the weekend, Portland wildlife was treated to a small bout of refreshing rainfall on Saturday night.
It was a moment of hope for fires burning all across the west.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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