Going up in smoke
As nearly 1,000 firefighters battle the Eagle Creek Fire that has consumed more than 33,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge, fallout from the blaze has been felt throughout the Portland metro area. But for several Wilsonville residents who were near the ignition point of the fire, they say that it took a while for the severity of the situation to sink in.
On a weekend trip up the Gorge to Skamania Lodge in Washington, a 10-minute drive north of Bridge of the Gods, Wilsonville resident Liz Freuler and her husband witnessed the beginning and early phases of the fire.
On Saturday, Sept. 2, as they were driving on the Old Columbia Gorge Highway the couple saw the initial smoke blooms billowing up out of the forest. At approximately 4:40 p.m., the blaze was producing a smokestack of white ash and by the evening, fire suppression efforts were ramping up in earnest.
"We watched the planes circle down and pick up water from the Columbia then head back to dump water on the fires," Freuler said. "This went on and on all night long."
By the next morning when the couple crossed back over the Bridge of the Gods, the smoke was already thick over the forest and surrounding area.
Rhonda Fister also experienced the fire up-close while attending a music festival on Monday at Timberline on Mount Hood.
"We had already planned to stay in Hood River and do a hike on Tuesday since we had taken the day off," Fister said. "We talked to the hotel on Monday — I-84 and the Bridge of the Gods were still open at that point — and they said, 'Oh yeah, things are still pretty good' and there were some other people at the concert who lived there and said that things were okay."
Tuesday morning, Fister said that it was pretty apparent that it was time to start heading back to Wilsonville. Crossing the Hood River Bridge into Washington, she said that it was hazy with smoke drifting from the Oregon side over the river to the Washington side but that things were still fairly clear.
"But as we continued to get south, before we got to Stevenson, we completely lost sight of the river and the Oregon side. You could see nothing," Fister said. "It was eerily quiet."
Despite being on recirculated air, Fister said that the smoke began to filter into the car.
Fast forward to Sept. 7 and Fister said ash was still snowing down in her Wilsonville neighborhood.
"There was more ash here than we experienced at Timberline or in Hood River," Fister said.
As fire crews continue to work, officials said Sept. 10 that 7 percent of the fire has been contained. Yet for the thousands of acres that have already burned, officials are saying that it will take many years for the area to recover fully.
"Like everyone else, we're devastated by the fire and the impact it is having on our beloved Columbia River Gorge," Freuler said. "Our hearts go out to all those impacted by the fire and are beyond grateful for those fighting the fire and the volunteers helping with the evacuation efforts."