By Tom Kloster, President, Trailkeepers of Oregon
Fires in the Columbia River Gorge are as old as the place itself. Early white settlers called it the “Devil’s Wind” when summer drought combined with the wind-tunnel effect of the gorge to create racing forest-fire infernos. As recently as 1991, fires burned a swath from Angel’s Rest to Multnomah Falls and a separate fire burned Wauna Point above Eagle Creek. These same areas burned again this month, and so this timeless cycle continues.
For all who love the Columbia River Gorge, September 2017 has been a rough ride. The Eagle Creek Fire has threatened the lives, homes, and livelihoods of thousands who live in the gorge and stretched first responders and firefighters to their limits. While the fire still burns, no lives have been lost, no serious injuries reported, and very few structures lost to the 35,000+ acre burn. That’s a relief, and with rain in the near forecast, those evacuated from their homes in the gorge may soon be able to safely return.
For many who have come to know and love the gorge as a second home and treasured escape from our urban lives, the fire also came as a shock. In time, the Eagle Creek Fire will present an opportunity for us to better understand and value the role of fire as a positive and important part of the gorge ecosystem, but at the moment, there’s a collective sense of loss.
After the 1991 fire, the Angel’s Rest Trail closed for some time, but was eventually reopened. At first, hikers walked through a blackened landscape, but soon the gorge showed its resilience with dense new growth carpeting the burned landscape. In recent years, only the bleached snags of the old forest have told the story of the fire that rolled through.
The Eagle Creek fire will continue to burn until the rainy season returns to put out the last embers. After that, TKO will be working with the Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation, and our nonprofit trail partners in the gorge to map out a recovery plan for putting the pieces back together on our beloved trails.
As our trails gradually reopen in the gorge, we’ll walk through charred areas and marvel at the raw power of the forest fire. But soon enough, the first new seedlings will emerge and begin building a new forest, just the way it has always been.
TKO will be part of this cycle of renewal, and we look forward to having you along with us for the journey.