Gorge fire is an unusual beast
As Mother Nature brewed a long-awaited forecast of rain, firefighters camping at Hood River County Fairgrounds made preparations for heading home.
In mid-September, tents still speckled the fairgrounds and men and women who had been fighting the Eagle Creek Fire overnight were sound asleep until they would wake for their next shift. Others were tending to tasks on the grounds, including rolling hoses that just came in from the line.
But one structural fire unit, including the Hoodland, Gladstone, Canby and Clackamas fire departments, standing near their red fire trucks on the fairgrounds, wouldn't have a next shift for the Eagle Creek Fire. With an expected 3 to 5 inches of rain during the course of five days, the weather would act as a natural douser, and hundreds of firefighters would return to their usual posts.
Welches' Hoodland Fire District Lt. Paramedic Eric Macy and his crew had been conducting structural operations on and off for a few weeks.
There are two types of firefighters during a wildfire situation: wildland fighters, who are out on the land working to extinguish the flames, and structural fighters, who aim to protect houses and other buildings.
Any firefighters who came in on a red fire truck from a city — some as far as Seaside — were working to save people's homes.
"We've just been trying to figure out what structures we have, and how to best protect them," Macy said. They look at each house, assess the condition of the landscaping, and determine whether there are ways they can clean the roofs and gutters. Only four structures have burned so far in the Eagle Creek Fire, illustrating the importance of their work.
"We spend a lot of time doing that, clearing brush, just to help them have a better defensible space. But for the most part, when you're looking at a large area like when there's 4,100 homes on this end, it takes a long time and a lot of people to do that. That's why we tell people ahead of time that they should make their homes defensible because we don't have the time to do everybody," Macy said.
The crew had been working the nighttime shifts, trying to familiarize themselves with the area. When a large wildfire breaks out, many fighters are suddenly thrust into an area they never may have been before. They checked on homes between Bridal Veil and Hood River, requiring a lot of driving.
Many agencies have been helping tackle the Eagle Creek Fire, including the Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management, including private contractors, overseen by the Oregon state fire marshal.
Crews had been working daunting 16-hours shifts. Resource orders for firefighters come in for 14-day assignments, with two days off.
Two structural task forces were out at night, with one stationed at Multnomah Falls.
The nighttime operations, while exhausting for the firefighters, also have their perks — providing some of the best conditions for burnout operations. And, a burning fire is, of course, easier to see in the night.
"We're on nights, and they try to send us home before the 14 days because you never sleep very good. So usually around (day) seven, then they cut us loose, then they ask us to come back," Macy said. "It's more difficult to stay rested, but it's sometimes nice to be out at night — you get the cooler temperatures and less active fire behavior, and at times you can see the fire, if it's there, because it glows."
He said some of the biggest dangers were the rocks rolling down the hills.
"I mean, of course, at night, you can't see anything — you hear it. When you're sitting there when the fire was actively going through, you could actually hear the trees and rocks rolling off the tops of the mountains," he said.
Macy started fighting fires in 2001, and has been with Hoodland for 10 years. He served three years with the Forest Service as a wildland fighter before moving over to structural.
"I like wildland, but the main reason I switched is because you can do structural year 'round. Wildland is usually a summer thing, unless you want to travel the country," he said.
Macy had been used to staying in a fire camp. The camp in Hood River was like its own little bustling city of firefighters, agency personnel and resources. They're well fed, with more donations from the community than one could count.
But even still, the Eagle Creek Fire situation was a different beast from what Macy had experienced during his years.
"I don't how how to say this — I've been on fires like this, but this one seems very political," he said. "I mean, there's a lot of different resources involved, in a lot of different areas, so it makes it more difficult."
This particular job has meant fighting a large fire in close proximity to a major metropolitan area, and dealing with communities that aren't fire-adept.
"This isn't a fire-adapted area. Portland — they're not used to seeing fire behavior at all," said Dawn Stender, a public information officer for the Eagle Creek Fire. Her regular job is trail crew supervisor for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, an agency that's overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. But when the Forest Service hits Preparedness Level 5, it means firefighting is the priority.
"That means that normally, if you're a recreation person, a park ranger or field ranger, trail crew member or a wildlife biologist, we get to this point where it's all hands on deck," she said. Of course, they need firefighter qualifications to jump in.
Stender was at the fairgrounds starting back in early August, when she was helping to fight the Indian Creek Fire, which initially started July 4 and then merged with the Eagle Creek Fire. What started as an operation of 40 to 60 fire personnel, by Saturday, Sept. 17, had grown to 1,060 people fighting the Eagle Creek Fire. By Sept. 18, personnel was reduced to 626.
Stender lives in Hood River, and before that lived in central Oregon, where cities like Sisters, Bend and areas near the Deschutes National Forest are more experienced with "defensible space," and fire ecology.
"It's just part of their lives. Whereas here, you know Portland, Hood River, the folks across the river — this isn't something they see. This fire ... we haven't had a big fire here in 100 years," Stender said.
Portlanders suddenly were seeing smoke and ash in their city's sky, a level of visibility not generally seen by such a large population.
Stender said that adding to the complexity was the fire's presence in the Columbia River Gorge area itself, which spans different counties including Multnomah and Hood River, as well as overlaps state land, and includes Skamania County in Washington.
They're used to seeing wildfires in more remote areas — not within a beloved scenic area with multiple historic sites, hatcheries, state, public and park lands.
Macy and his crew learned a lot about the different historic areas and agencies involved.
"I've never spent a lot of time in the gorge. There's a lot of historic and scenic things here that I didn't know existed. We were protecting things, and I'm like, I didn't even know this was here," Macy said.
The crew successfully protected the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge for three nights. Before that, one of their main assignments was protecting the Bridal Veil Post Office.
"That was one of our big assignments, because the community likes the Bridal Veil Post Office," he said.
There also are many historic buildings in the Eagle Creek campground, including the U.S. Forest Service's first flush toilet, and first developed campground. The campground celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
While Macy and crews were protecting Multnomah Falls Lodge, he learned a bit more about the Union Pacific trains that come through — including that they like to toot their horns a lot.
"I learned the train sure runs through a lot. Like every 10 minutes. And then they blow their horn when they go by Multnomah Falls," he laughed.
But he and his crew's jobs were done, at least for the Eagle Creek Fire. Now he'll have to jump right back into work in Welches. On his way home, he'd pass numerous signs on businesses and in people's yards thanking firefighters.
"It means a lot," Stender said. "These folks are away from their families for two weeks at a time, and some people are on their sixth assignment for the summer — so they're gone for months."
At the camp, hand-drawn thank yous and pictures from children hung at nearly every food station and were even packed in lunches.
"A child wrote today, 'My chickens thank you — they've been inside. They want to go outside and play,'" Stender said.