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Long after the ominous glow fades from the Eagle Creek Fire, thousands of burnt trees will serve as a red-ember reminder of the fire and flames that devoured swaths of Columbia River Gorge forest.
That's a reporter's key takeaway after soaring 5,500 feet above the Gorge in a single-engined Cessna Skylane airplane launched from Troutdale Airport.
"(At first), it looked like Mordor," notes The Outlook's trusty pilot Corey Rust, who runs a Troutdale charter-flight service called Envi Adventures. Mordor is a fictional kingdom in "Lord of the Rings," part of author J.R.R. Tolkien's renowned literary trilogy.
"It's still the gorge. It's still pretty," Rust remarks later. "I don't think (it has suffered) the vast destruction that so many people thought based on pictures."
From the air, charred trees look like rust-colored bristles carpeting the nooks and crannies of the massive geological formation riven by sudden floods at the end of the last Ice Age.Fire officials say the stark, tawny spikes running up and down Horsetail Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Angel's Rest and other popular scenic attractions mark areas of highest heat.
"There's some areas where (you see) the darkest colors — it looks like a lot of the leaves and stuff were burned away," explains public information officer Lidiana Soto. "Right around that you'll see a tan color. Those trees did retain their foliage."
Photos taken by The Outlook from the air show a mosaic burn pattern comprising black, tan and green trees.
Blackened stands of trees suffered the worst damage, but make up just 15 percent of the total burn area, Soto says. It's likely most of these trees are snags — another word for a dead tree that's still upright.
Rachel Pawlitz, of the U.S. Forest Service, calls these snags "matchstick trees."
"All the living vegetative matter — even loose, leafy (material) on the forest floor — has been completely burned away, and you're down to the soil," she describes.
Some of the burned trees closest to civilization — including timber at Multnomah Falls and the Eagle Creek trailhead, near where the blaze was first sparked — are tan colored, which means they were licked by flames of moderate heat.
This medium-intensity conflagration affected 30 percent of the total fire area. The remaining 55 percent of the wildfire has been classified as a low-intensity burn.
The verdant patches depicted in aerial photographs can be misleading. In reality, healthy-looking treetops don't necessarily mean the understory and other flora haven't been burned out.
Similarly, fires can hide in a tree's underground root system for days before suddenly erupting to the surface. A lack of smoke and fire doesn't necessarily mean a tree isn't burning.
That's part of the reason why most Gorge-area trails are expected to be shut off from the public for as long as two years. High-intensity fire destroys roots, leaving the ground without the tendrils that suck up rainfall.
"When all of that gets eliminated, the water doesn't absorb into the soil," notes Soto. "If you have a significant rain event, it runs off the hills very quickly, so there's an increased possibility of landslides in some areas."
"Dead trees can fall, rocks can fall down a hillside, landslides can occur. All of these things can occur even without rain," adds Pawlitz.
Officials plan to release new fire maps based on satellite imagery on Friday. Those maps will indicate where the fire burned hottest, and will help foresters decide which trails are safest to reopen.
Outlook journalists spotted a few isolated plumes of white smoke on Tuesday, Oct. 3. Fire officials say that is to be expected, noting that there are simply not enough resources available to scramble firefighters to every hot spot that pops up across the blaze's range of around 50,000 acres.
As of Thursday morning, Oct. 5, the fire is approximately 46 percent contained, with 166 assigned personnel on hand.
Want your own tour?
The Outlook captured these aerial shots with the help of Corey Rust, the Troutdale entrepreneur behind charter-flight service Envi Adventures.
If you'd like to see the Gorge from a bird's-eye perspective yourself, here's what you need to know:
What: Envi Adventures
Location: Troutdale Airport
Tours: Figure 8, Portlandia, Quicksand Triangle, Wonderful Waterfalls, Vista View
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Cost: $99 to $379
CORRECTION: The Columbia River Gorge was formed by massive floods during the end of the last Ice Age. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
Watchful reader Robin Marks wrote in with a succinct explanation of the science. Here is his letter in full:
To the Editor:
I enjoyed your article covering the Eagle Creek Fire aftermath ("Still GORGE-ous," Friday, Oct. 6, Page A1). I want to make one correction to the article. You said the Gorge was cut by the Columbia River. It is now known it was formed by many floods flowing from ice dams that broke loose in Montana. Not in millions of years but rather over a course of time beginning at the end of the last ice age. This is proving true of many geologic features that were believed to have been formed slowly. Most canyons and gorges were formed catastrophically. The speed in which many features near Mount St. Helens developed has aided in this research.