COURTESY OF TUALATIN VALLEY FIRE & RESCUE - Once ignited, the trestle in Sherwood quickly burned to the ground.

Days after it began, smoke still rose from the smoldering remains of the Portland & Western Railroad train trestle in Sherwood, which caught fire the afternoon of Aug. 10 and burned through the night.

By the morning of Aug. 11, only about 20 percent of the trestle remained, much of it smoldering, with a few pockets of red hot embers still glowing in the dark earth.

Rising 50 feet above the ground, the trestle was one of the longest in the area, spanning 600 feet from end to end.

The trestle lies in ruins today, unrecognizable from the iconic timber structure that carried freight trains across a small ravine to Newberg and on to Willamina. It once straddled Rock Creek and a wetlands area below.

Steel beams snake and twist in on themselves, and hundreds of black, burnt railroad ties scatter the scorched earth. A handful of tall timbers still stand sentinel, trying to support a structure that’s no longer there.

Smoke rose from the remains for several days, and it is unclear whether or not the trestle will be rebuilt.

The fire was reported at about 4:20 p.m. Aug. 10 in a field near Southwest Tualatin-Sherwood Road east of Langer Farms Parkway, not far from the Sherwood Walmart.

It crackled and burned quickly. Then, sometime early Aug. 11, between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m., the first large section of the trestle fell. Another large chunk gave way between 3:30 and 4 a.m.

With only a small section of the trestle left on that same day, an excavator tractor removed the last of what had not burned completely, initially heaping the huge timbers into a pile before laying them out individually to avoid future flareups.

Just what caused the blaze remains a mystery. Fire investigators — consisting of both Sherwood police and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue — began examining the scene on the afternoon of Aug. 11 after the fire had died down.

They said that the fire likely started in the grassy area underneath the trestle, and then the flames climbed the creosote-soaked timbers, engulfing the entire trestle within a few hours.

TVF&R firefighters evacuated businesses and shut down roads around the area as crews worked to contain the blaze.

Dozens of residents flocked outside their homes, walking down Oregon Street or past roadblocks on Century Drive the evening the fire started, hoping to catch a closer look of one of the most devastating fires the city has seen in years.

The two-alarm fire brought more than 50 firefighters to the area.

The railroad trestle ends a stone’s throw from the headquarters of chemical distributor North Star Chemical. Firefighters set up a containment around the site to keep the flames from spreading.

As the fire was burning, there was initial concern about six tanker cars that were stationary just in back of the beginning of the trestle. However, Portland & Western officials soon confirmed the tankers were empty and clean, their wheels locked so they couldn't roll in either direction.

Using a communications system that telephoned, texted or emailed residents, an estimated 7,000 households were notified to keep their windows and doors closed for two days and not to exercise outdoors due to poor air quality.

One firefighter was injured fighting the blaze. At about 6 a.m. on Aug. 11, the firefighter was working near the rail line when two of the trestle’s ties shifted, trapping his leg.

Crews had to use chainsaws to cut away the logs and free the man, according to TVF&R. He was taken to Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center in Tualatin for treatment. No bones were broken. and the firefighter was released.

Cassandra Ulven, a TVF&R spokeswoman, said that the fire was one of the strangest that the district has faced in several years.

“It’s certainly unusual,” she said. “In my 17 years of working here, it’s the only fire like it. We’ve had fires in rail tunnels, on railroad tracks, fires that burned bridges, but this is definitely the biggest and the most unique that I’m aware of.”

The fire not only consumed the trestle but also a large section of grass and wetlands that the trestle crosses.

TVF&R estimated about eight acres of wetland were destroyed by the fire, which firefighters attacked in much the same way that they would attack a wildfire, Ulven said.

“They broke the fire up into divisions, just like in a wildfire scenario,” she said. “They got a perimeter and worked their way in to keep the brushfire from spreading and putting out spot-fires beyond the immediate area.”

Those spot-fires were caused by the creosote, a tar-like substance used to preserve railroad ties.

Within hours of the trestle’s collapse, some began to suggest that the railroad should sell off the line and convert it into a trail system, similar to the Banks-Vernonia Trail, a former rail line that was converted in the 1970s.

P&W officials have not commented on that possibility, saying that any decision about the trail will be evaluated “in the weeks ahead.”

The trestle was part of the P&W’s Rex Hill line. On Aug. 11, Portland & Western released a statement, thanking firefighters for their quick response.

“Portland & Western is grateful for the quick response of local first responders and wish a full and speedy recovery to the firefighter who was reported injured,” P&W stated in a news release issued Tuesday morning.

The line is used sparingly by railway customers. P&W said that the loss of the trestle would not impact rail-served customers, almost all of whom are located north of the trestle.

The trestle was built 85 years ago, though the railroad has operated a trestle in that area since the 1880s.

"This is an event that, I think, has really touched the hearts of people in Sherwood," said Sherwood Mayor Krisanna Clark. "I feel this is a piece of history we have lost forever."

(Sherwood Gazette editor Ray Pitz also contributed to this report.)


By Ray Pitz
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