Columbia River Gorge: The 'new normal'
Coined by Smokey Bear, it's a message people have heard for a long time: "Only you can prevent forest fires."
That sentiment has been on the minds of Columbia River Gorge residents as they continue to rebound from the Eagle Creek Fire, which started to sweep across the region one year ago. And though they are brainstorming ways to better protect the wondrous area, residents also need to accept that wildfires are likely the new normal.
"A careless youth may have caused the Eagle Creek Fire, but we are going to have to deal with a lot more in the coming years," said Michael Lang, conservation director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
A group of almost 100 people heard that message as they gathered Thursday night, Aug. 30, for a community forum organized by Friends of the Gorge in Hood River.
The main culprit behind future fires won't likely be errantly thrown fireworks, like the poor decision that sparked the Eagle Creek blaze late last summer, but rather climate change.
"As much as we would like a system that stays the same, it's a dynamic world," said Dana Skelly, regional fuels program manager for the United States Forest Service. "We have to get used to the rhythms of fire in this region."
The Eagle Creek Fire started one year ago on Sept. 2, 2017, after a then 15-year-old Washington boy threw fireworks into the Eagle Creek Canyon. The fire raged to consume more than 48,000 acres. And though it was 100 percent contained on Nov. 30, it is still an ongoing issue and has yet to be officially declared extinguished.
There is potential that a hotspot will break out in the fire's containment area, said Traci Weaver, U.S. Forest Service regional fire information officer for the Pacific Northwest.
"As you remember, we didn't have a very wet winter," she said. "It certainly hasn't been wet this summer so there are large pockets that (could be burning) down deep."
One of these hot spots broke out on May 29, about a half mile east of Herman Creek Trailhead. Firefighters from the forest service were able to put that out in less than a day.
Remembering the fire
Renee Tkach, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance board president, will never forget seeing the Eagle Creek Fire spread. She watched as flames jumped the river a mile from her house, billowing black smoke and ash into the sky.
"It was raining fire, with ashes and pieces of wood a foot wide falling on our property," she said. "My husband and I were putting out spot fires around our home."
Eventually, like many others, Tkach evacuated, unsure whether she would ever see her home again. She also didn't know what would become of the Gorge, a place she worked to promote through the Friends of the Gorge organization.
"When the fire began, I was afraid there wouldn't be the same number of people visiting," Tkach said.
The fire caused a long shutdown of Interstate 84, clouded the Portland metropolitan area in smoke and rained ash across East Multnomah County. Estimates show the fire caused a loss of $8.3 million for businesses in the area.
Perhaps one of the few good things the Eagle Creek Fire produced is an increased focus on local collaboration.
"The fire sparked partnerships between people and groups that weren't there before," Tkach said. "It showed the resilience in the communities."
The Eagle Creek Fire sped up development of programs like Ready, Set, Gorge, Explore the Gorge, and a map of the scenic area with amenities and businesses. It also promoted car-free exploration of the Gorge, helping eliminate much of the congestion hitting the area.
The fire has also pushed people to visit new trails and locations, as their usual haunts remained closed for restoration.
Stephen Baker, U.S. Forest Service regional media officer for the Pacific Northwest, said tourists are still visiting the Gorge, but are exploring areas that were either untouched, or not heavily affected, by the fire.
"One thing we have definitely seen is there has been more (tourists) on the Washington side of the Gorge," Baker said. "There have been more people checking out those areas."
The trails that remained open have been hit harder by the increased concentration of hikers, speeding up the normal wear and tear.
"Leave no trace is the big no-brainer here," Tkach said. "We have an opportunity to spread the importance of that message and teach responsible recreation."
One method was the launch of the Trailhead Ambassador program last spring to help curb degradation on the front end. Volunteers are placed at the most popular trailheads to educate hikers and prevent unnecessary damage to the trails. The ambassadors talk about packing out trash, minimizing campfire impacts, leaving what you find and respecting wildlife. By the end of July, 91 people had volunteered, donating 1,700 hours and engaging with more than 15,500 visitors at eight trailheads
"There is still a lot of work to do," Lang said.
Fire has always played a role in the Gorge, and across history ecosystems have evolved to survive and thrive after blazes. Wherever there is combustible vegetation, fire is inevitable. And in fact, many organisms depend on those flames.
According to Skelly, most plants in the United States are either fire adaptive or fire tolerant. A study conducted a few years ago by the forest service found that only four species of plants in the country are adversely affected by forest fires. Locally, the fire has promoted the growth of wildflowers like lupin and fireweed, as well as the popular morel mushrooms loved by fungus hunters.
"Every ecosystem is shaped by some sort of disturbance," Skelly said. "There is not a single fire that doesn't have some sort of benefit."
With years of fire suppression, forests have thickened. That loads up the available fuel, making fires that do break out more devastating and difficult to control. Luckily, after the Eagle Creek Fire, only a small portion was severely lost because it burned in a patchy, or "mosaic," fashion. Only a few homes were lost. Though devastating to their owners, the number could have been much higher.
The undergrowth being burned out makes the Gorge better able to withstand future fires. That extra space opens the door to more invasive species, but Friends of the Gorge has launched a stewardship effort to train and deploy teams of volunteers to slow the growth of weeds.
The Eagle Creek Fire is a reminder of what can happen when conditions are hot, dry and windy. And with climate change, those types of situations are becoming more and more frequent.
"We're doing all we can to get a strong prevention message out there," Baker said. "Even this summer there were hundreds of human-caused fires. For me, it's a reminder about the importance of fire prevention. Human caused fires are all too common."
While the recent cooling trend seems like a nice relief, Baker warned that it's still pretty dry out there. And as people return to the Gorge, it's important to remember the disaster that hit a year ago, and look forward to what can be done to protect the region.
"We don't want to become complacent," he said. "The need for fire safety is critical."
Eagle Creek Fire timeline
Sept. 2: The Eagle Creek fire was ignited by a 15-year-old boy throwing fireworks in the Eagle Creek Canyon.
Sept. 3: Gov. Kate Brown invokes the Emergency Conflagration Act, which allows more resources to be invested into battling the blaze.
Sept. 4: Evacuation order issued for Warrendale, Dodson, Larch Mountain, Latourell, Bridal Veil and Corbett, east of and 38700 block of Columbia River Highway.
Sept. 5: Eagle Creek Fire merges with nearby Indian Creek Fire.
Sept. 18: All Eagle Creek Fire evacuation orders for Multnomah County lifted.
Nov. 29: The lodge at Multnomah Falls reopens.
Nov. 30: Officials declare the Eagle Creek Fire 100 percent contained.
March 19: Lower viewing platform at Multnomah Falls reopens.
Feb. 16: The Vancouver, Wash., teenager suspected of starting wildfire pleads guilty to 12 misdemeanors and apologizes in a Hood River County courtroom. He was sentenced to five years probation and 1,920 hours of community service.
May 23: The teenager responsible for the fire is ordered to pay more than $36 million in restitution.
May 29: Firefighters respond to hotspot near Herman Creek Trailhead.
June 28: Benson Bridge at Multnomah Falls reopens on the same day former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalyn stop by the falls.
There are simple steps residents
can take to protect their homes and
better prepare for the possibility of
another disaster like the Eagle
"Most of this is common sense,
and just something to keep in
mind," said Dan Richardson, firewise
coordinator for the Underwood
Conservation District. "If you live
out of town, in the country, take
some responsibility for your property
and the land."Clean your gutters to remove
sources of kindling, brush pine needles
off your roof, and move stacks
of firewood away from the side of
your home.Remove low limbs from trees
on your property.If you have juniper bushes,
consider removing them. People in
the firefighting business call them
gasoline on a stick because they
catch more readily than other
plants.Consider hardscaping around
the house, using tiles or stones.
Space trees so that they aren't
too dense, and break up the canopy
with different heights of trees.Mow your fields and lawns, as
grass burns very quickly.Keep in mind out buildings like
barns and sheds. Don't neglect other
structures, as they burn much
hotter than other things that are
likely to catch on fire.Consider access to your home.
Put up a metal reflective address
sign to help draw the attention of
firefighters during a disaster.Put the most important things
in your home, like photographs, in
an easily accessible place so you
can quickly gather them during an
evacuation.Talk with neighbors to come up
with plans for helping each other in
case of a fire.Have an emergency kit with
food, water and medical supplies.