Repairs continue on Eagle Creek Trail in Columbia River Gorge
Two footbridges were successfully flown onto Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area this week, replacing wooden bridges burned during the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017.
The new bridges still require more work to complete the installment, and U.S. Forest Service and volunteer crews are still clearing rockfall and repairing narrow sections of the trail, which is famous for precariously hugging a cliff dotted with waterfalls.
Fern Creek Bridge — 2.6 miles in — and High Bridge — 3.3 miles in — are a critical part of the 13-mile trail, as there are no other entry or exit routes between the Eagle Creek Trail and the 3,000 foot climb to Wahtum Lake on the Mt. Hood National Forest.
Both bridges are steel truss bridges with concrete sills, and were flown in by helicopter. Decking and railing comprised of untreated western cedar will be added to them as part of the installation process. Funding for the bridges was provided by a federal disaster recovery act.
Eagle Creek Trail remains closed with no estimated date for the trail to reopen. While continuing trail repairs, the U.S. Forest Service will monitor the landscape and trail for signs of instability.
Those who illegally enter the closed area put first responders at risk and can face fines of $330.00 with a maximum of $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail. Citations can be issued based on social media posts documenting illegal entry.
"We're just entering the season of heaviest rainfall and snowfall events. Even before Eagle Creek Fire, the trail experienced landslides, cliff collapses, snowslides, or other major events every winter," said Stan Hinatsu, recreation staff officer for the national scenic area, "Given that wildfires are notorious for creating unstable landscapes, we won't know if we're ready to open until we see how the trail holds up to extreme weather."
The fire's long-term destabilizing effect on the steep slopes of the Columbia River Gorge has already taken its toll on two other well-known trails in the area. While it was closed last winter, a junction on Wahclella Trail become unrecognizable after rocks and landslides completely covered the trail, creating more work for crews before it was ready to reopen. A section of Larch Mountain Trail — which leads visitors to the upper Multnomah Falls — had to be closed from April to May of this year after large rocks broke away from an overhanging rock formation, putting hikers at risk.
Eagle Creek Fire was a 48,000-acre conflagration that ignited on September 2, 2017, when a firework was thrown into Eagle Creek Canyon, about a mile from the trailhead. It caused evacuations in several communities and closed I-84 and numerous recreation facilities in the Columbia River Gorge, including more than 140 miles of hiking trails.
More than 70% of the trail miles impacted by the fire have since reopened, but two years later, remaining closed areas are still extremely unstable and unsafe for the public. Hikers are asked to respect all signs and closed areas, for their own safety and that of first responders. A post-fire scientific report noted that the risks of landslides remain escalated for several years after a fire.
"Post-fire landscapes can actually become more unstable several years later, when dead trees decay and their roots no longer help hold soil in place along steep slopes," said Rachel Pawlitz, public affairs officer for the national scenic area.
Hikers always assume risks when hiking in backcountry trails, and should check the weather before visiting the Gorge. The Forest Service recommends avoiding hiking in burned areas during heavy rain, snow storms, and high winds, as these can be triggers for tree fall, rockslides, and landslides.
To check the status of Forest Service hiking trails in the Gorge, visit this link.
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