Gorge on recovery path after Eagle Creek Fire
As the recovery effort from the Eagle Creek Fire continues across the Columbia River Gorge, rangers with the Oregon State Parks are looking "Beyond the Ashes."
The rangers presented an informational event Saturday evening, Feb. 3, at Thunder Island Brewing in Cascade Locks. It was a chance for community members from the places affected by the fire to see photos of the damage and recovery, learn of the timeline for reopening trails as well as how they can help.
"It feels like the last five months have been five years, but we are making progress," said Miranda Mendoza, a ranger with the West Columbia Gorge State Parks.
Though the Eagle Creek fire was declared 100 percent contained on Nov. 30, that doesn't mean the fire is completely out. While there is no threat of it flaring back up, there are still some root sections smoldering and smoking.
"The first time you see the Gorge it's a shock," Mendoza said. "We are all feeling a hit seeing the damage that was caused."
The damage depends on which section of the Gorge you visit. Some was only hit with a mosaic burn, which takes out the underbrush but leaves many of the trees in good condition. In some of the assessments conducted, crews are already seeing ferns and mosses returning to the affected areas.
Ainsworth State Park is one of the sections that is recovering much faster. Structures like park benches and restrooms all survived, and the hiking trails are in fairly good condition. The main work will be clearing the debris from the path.
"Ainsworth is a miracle in itself because the fire went up around everything," Mendoza said.
Other parts of the Gorge were hit much harder, and the damage is severe. The John B. Yeon Scenic Corridor, which connects McCord Falls and Elowah Falls was hit particularly hard.
"Seeing the damage in this section hit us in the gut; it leaves you speechless," Mendoza said. "This lush, beautiful area is no longer as it was."
When showing pictures from this section of the Gorge, the 30 audience members gasped upon seeing the fire damage. The undergrowth has completely burned away and the fire jumped into the canopy, killing most of the trees. The lower sections of trail are still intact, but higher up landslides buried it. One positive is the rail section near the top is still in place, which was made by blasting into the hill, a technique no longer allowed.
Around Elowah Falls there is still greenery at the basin, but everything else has been burned away. Upper McCord fared the worst, Mendoza said.
"This is one of the worst areas for Oregon State Park land," she said. "We are going to need a wet summer to see any of these trees survive."
Many of the stakeholders within the region have come together to form the Gorge Recovery Team, which allows them to pool resources and ideas going forward. Some of the key participants include Oregon State Parks, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Washington Trails Association, Trail Keepers of Oregon and the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
They have been training volunteers and assisting in conducting assessments of the damage. Once things become safe, these groups will be leading teams in to begin doing the trail work.
While many dates for reopening the trails remain up in the air, Mendoza was able to share some information. Ainsworth State Park is scheduled to be opened on March 9, with parts of Gorge Trail No. 400 and Horsetail Falls following shortly after. Angel's Rest is planned to be completed sometime this summer, and the Historic Columbia River Highway between John B. Yeon and Bonneville Dam should be open in August.
There is no timeline for McCord and Elowah Falls.
"We ask that people be patient, don't go off the trails that have been opened," Mendoza said. "Everyone is working hard to get this work done, it just takes time."