Locals could use perspective about Gorge fire
August was a tough month, in terms of the natural world and our feelings about it. Record high temperatures fried our crops, our gardens, our living rooms and sometimes our tempers. We endured a cosmic moment when the moon blocked out the sun, prepared to fight off a zombie apocalypse from said cosmic event and struggled with debilitating smoke socking in our communities.
The wildfires have been particularly impactful to me, but not for the reasons you might think.
I lived in Central Oregon for 11 years and every one of those years there were wildfires burning. I'm used to fires. I'm used to having to close windows in my house even though it's 95 degrees out. I'm used to the sinking feeling seeing plumes of smoke rising from forests I know to be teeming with wildlife and from desert grasslands where my family enjoyed to recreate.
It was disheartening, inconvenient, and often tragic but always a fact of life living in this modern world. Some fires were caused by lightning, some by people, and some we never knew, but all destroyed places where living creatures, both animal and man, made their homes.
So why was this year of fire so hard for me? Because this year I'm living on the wet side of the mountains and this year, for the first time since I've been living back in the metro area, a wildfire happened close to home.
Like most people living in and around Portland, I have deep emotional connections with the Columbia River Gorge. The Historic Columbia Gorge Highway was a particular favorite "Sunday Drive" route of my grandparents and I spent many joyful weekends in their company. Multnomah Falls is the spot I used to take all of my out-of-area visitors if I really wanted to impress them. And of all the hikes I've done in Oregon, I'm absurdly proud of tackling the hike to the top of the falls with my best friend.
For many years my family traveled nearly every weekend to tiny Dufur, south of The Dalles, and I memorized every mile of that drive down I-84 (remember, this was before in-car DVD players).
So you'd think that my primary reactions to the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge would be anguish and outrage, but actually my strongest reaction has been disbelief.
Not about the fire itself, which is a travesty against nature, but about the regional reaction to the fire.
Everywhere I go, to pick up a coffee, visit with neighbors or scrolling through social media online, there it is — cloth-tearing public displays of grief, moral outrage bordering on mania and a sense of betrayal out of all proportion to what has happened.
Is it horrific that tens of thousands of acres of one of Oregon's most beautiful and unique areas has been decimated and will never be the same in our lifetime? Without question. And is it terrible to think that it was a needless tragedy, caused by a thoughtless deed by an immature human? Yes.
But really? Just this week law enforcement said it was declining to name the juvenile who caused the fire because of fears for his safety. Are they being overly cautious? Probably not. The spit-spewing diatribes against this kid in public forums have been shocking and if only a small percentage reflects words that become actions, he could well be in danger.
What western Oregon needs is a bit of perspective. This is not the worst fire in Oregon, not the most amount of ruined land or lost homes. Not this year, not last year, not EVER. Every year other areas of Oregon and the Northwest suffer much more significant damage to areas just as precious.
Don't believe me? This summer alone the state of Montana has lost nearly half a million acres to wildfire and most of them are still burning — including one in Glacier National Park that is likely to outpace Eagle Creek.
In southern Oregon more than a quarter million acres of national forests have burned so far this summer and every year Central and Eastern Oregon have fires that dwarf Eagle Creek.
In Washington State more than 250,000 acres burned in the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, decimating Methow and Okanogan valleys — extremely popular recreational areas for Puget Sound-area residents — and destroyed more than 300
Think about upwards of 1,000 people made homeless by a wildfire that far outpaced Eagle Creek.
Nothing wrong with showing more emotion about the destruction of a place close to your heart and close to your home, that's human nature. But I'd like to think it's also human nature to realize other people, other places, have suffered and are suffering the same heartache you are and just maybe beating your breast about your loss to such extremes shows a lack of empathy and perspective.
Leslie Pugmire Hole is the editor of the Wilsonville Spokesman and West Linn Tidings.