On the right track
Mixed among the brilliantly blooming spring wildflowers in the Columbia River Gorge are burned tree stumps that serve as a reminder of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.
While the U.S. Forest Service reopened more than half of the 134 miles of trails the organization manages on the Oregon side of the Gorge last October, it will still be awhile before several pathways — including the highly popular Eagle Creek Trail — will reopen.
"We're not even sure we'll open (the Eagle Creek Trail) this year," said Rachel Pawlitz, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service's Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. "There are several bridge replacements needed, so first we have to get the trail safe enough for engineers to survey on the ground, then they have to design replacement bridges. Then we have to build and fly replacement bridges into backcountry terrain."
Restoration efforts on other trails were halted for the winter last November, but since work resumed, Angel's Rest Trail near Bridal Veil; Wahkeena Falls Trail, about a half mile west of Multnomah Falls; and Larch Mountain Trail near Corbett, have all been reopened.
"All of the trails that opened last November are the latest offerings, and trail work doesn't tend to begin in earnest until April or May because of weather and snow on the ground," Pawlitz said. "So, it's unlikely we'll open new trails for months."
The conflagration raged for two months after a 15-year-old Washington boy threw fireworks into the heavily hiked Eagle Creek Canyon, eventually consuming more than 48,000 acres in the Gorge, closing roads, biking paths and hiking trails for months.
Since the fire was declared contained on Nov. 30, 2017, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Forest Service crews have cleared burned trees, stabilized ground erosion and repaired or replaced bridges over streams.
Pawlitz said last year's restoration theme was opening as many trails as possible, and evaluating what restoration efforts were required.
"We've done most of that triaging," Pawlitz said. "We are out there looking at landscapes, and the areas we are not working on is because a geologist told us the ground was too unstable. One important point is there are going to be trails that won't open for several years because the ground it very unstable."
Now that the Forest Service knows what repairs are needed, it will focus its efforts on fixing the less damaged areas, and will prioritize major repairs for the most popular Gorge destinations.
Aside from the Eagle Creek Trail, where the wildfire was ignited, two closed sections too unstable for repairs include Wahcella Falls Trail south of the Bonneville Dam, and Oneanta Gorge, about two miles east of Multnomah Falls. Despite the trails' status, they are starting to attract plenty of visitors.
"Please don't go there. We will cite people who are back there," Pawlitz emphasized.
While the U.S. Federal service manages most trails in the Gorge, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is in charge of 46.6 miles of trails, noted Clay Courtright, Oregon State Parks manager for the West Gorge Management Unit. Only three miles of the state-operated pathways remain closed.
Oregon Parks is working along with Pacific Crest Trail Trail Keepers of Oregon and Friends of the Gorge to reopen these damaged areas.
The remaining three miles of closed trails are where the Eagle Creek fire burned especially hot. The blaze burned in a mosaic pattern, so a few areas in the Gorge appear virtually untouched, while others were scorched.
These heavily burned areas are where the ground is too unstable for repair and could take five to seven years before reopening. The three miles of closed trails comprise natural surface trails at John B. Yeon, Tooth Rock, and approximately half a mile of trail at Shepperd's Dell.
"That's where we're at," Courtright said. "I get concerned when (around 94%) of trails are open, and people ask why haven't you opened all the trails."
The Eagle Creek Fire served as a wake-up call for Columbia River Gorge residents. With May as National Wildfire Awareness Month, residents in the area started protecting their homes in case another conflagration breaks out.
The Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal and Keep Oregon Green, Oregon forest protective associations, the Office of Emergency Management and federal wild land agencies, are encouraging residents to create defensible space around their homes before fire strikes.
To reduce the risk, fire officials recommend removing dead vegetation from 30 feet around houses and other structures. In most cases, trees and healthy plants do not need to be removed, according to guidelines from the Oregon State Fire Marshal.
Homeowners should also consider access issues for large fire trucks. Long driveways should be at least 12-feet wide, have 10-feet of vegetation clearance from the centerline out, and about 14 feet overhead. Large vehicle turnaround areas are critical for safety and well as firefighter safety.
It is the homeowner's responsibility to protect their homes by building defensible space. For more information, visit Ready.gov website.
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