Weather conditions this afternoon will offer the first major test of defenses put in place since the fire erupted on Sept. 2, incident commanders fighting the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge said at a morning briefing in Troutdale.
“Everything is holding in place,” Fire Incident Command spokesperson Jim Whittington said, referring to the defense lines. “If we can make it through today, there will be cooler weather ahead that we’re looking forward to” to help contain the fire.
The number of acres burned grew slightly overnight to about 35,500 acres, largely because of intentional burnouts by fire crews within the fire zone and expansion on the east side of the fire near Herman Creek in Hood River County, Whittington said.
“Fire activity picked up on Monday due to drier, breezier weather and a drop in humidity,” he said. “The fire backed down the west side of Herman Creek.” The creek is a key defense line on the east side of the fire, because there are few natural barriers to stop the fire between the creek and the city of Hood River. Fire has not crossed to the east side of the creek.
The fire is 11 percent contained with 905 firefighters continuing to battle the blaze. “This fire will never be 100 percent contained,” Whittington said at the briefing. Firefighters say the fire is contained in an area where they expect the defense lines will hold. The southern boundary of the Eagle Creek Fire is remote wilderness, making it virtually impossible to defend.
“Our focus is to contain areas around structures, roads and assets like power lines and the Bull Run watershed,” Whittington said, including protecting homes in the western Gorge.
“We are focused on tying the contained areas in the I-84 corridor together,” he said.
Along the fire’s south edge in the wilderness, fire commanders expect Oregon’s typical fall rain will help extinguish the fire. Whittington cautioned that putting out the fire, “is going to take awhile. There will be regular flare-ups in pockets when areas dry out and fire lights up. Our focus will be to make sure our defense lines hold.”
Whittington said that the perception of the fire’s damage to the national scenic area will depend on one’s perspective. “The fire guy in me looks at the aftermath and says ‘This is not going to look too bad.’ But I’m also the guy who has hiked trails and visited waterfalls in the Gorge. And from that view, the Gorge is going to look different than it did before.”
Sheriff’s Office prepares for families to return home
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, encouraged by the progress of fire crews, is planning to help hundreds of evacuees return to their homes, Lt. Chad Gaidos, a spokesperson for the office, said Tuesday.
But safety, for residents and first responders, remains a top priority.
Any decision to proceed with changes in evacuation levels will depend on the fire’s response to weather conditions today, Sept. 12, which are expected to test containment lines and protective measures, especially along the fire’s western boundary.
“The sheriff’s office is encouraged by the progress we’re seeing. We’re looking forward to the fire lines being tested today with some weather, and we we’re hoping they will stand,” Gaidos said. “We’re prepared with a process to get people back into their homes when they are safe.”
“We will have to wait,” he continued, “until it’s exactly that.”
Gaidos encouraged residents to sign up for notifications on evacuation changes and re-entry procedures at PublicAlerts.org. Other notification options include:
Sign up to receive flash alerts and news releases from the Sheriff's Office
Follow the Sheriff's Office on Twitter
Follow the Sheriff's Office on Facebook
Sign up for Public Alerts at www.publicalerts.org. This is the quickest way to be notified of evacuation level changes in your area - including re-entry to previously evacuated areas.
Call Multnomah County Aging & Disability Resource Connection (ADRC) Helpline 24/7 to get signed up at 503-988-3646.
Because the fire remains active, Gaidos asked residents to keep out of evacuated areas until further notice, even as he thanked them for their patience.
Those who enter evacuated areas put themselves in danger. And they also endanger first responders who might have to protect them. Deputies and other law enforcement partners are still doing “augmented patrols” to keep areas secure, Gaidos said.
“Please stay out of the evacuated areas,” he said. “There is still fire in those areas and there is risk to the firefighters who are working diligently to protect those homes, who are doing fire patrols.”
Red Cross evacuation shelter moves to Troutdale Church
The evacuation shelter run by the American Red Cross at Mount Hood Community College is moving Tuesday afternoon to a new location in Troutdale at Harvest Christian Church, 624 SW Halsey St., Cascades Region spokesperson Monique Dugaw said.
The shift comes before the start of Mount Hood’s fall term. Dugaw said the move is typical in longer-term response situations. The new site will continue to offer space indoors for people and pets, and space outdoors for recreational vehicles.
“Our priority is focused on the human need that is a result of the fire,” Dugaw said. “We will continue to serve as long as there is a need.”
Overall, including a separate shelter in Stevenson, Wash., the Red Cross has consistently sheltered about 170 people each night, and has served nearly 8,000 meals and snacks between the two locations. To support that work, Dugaw said, people can donate to the Cascades chapter directly or the national Red Cross organization.
“The Red Cross is seeing an outpouring of community support since this fire started,” she said. “We and the evacuees are very grateful.”
Too soon to know when the Gorge will reopen
Because safety remains such a concern, as the Eagle Creek Fire burns, the U.S. Forest Service also has asked people not to tempt fate and to stay far away from roads and forests threatened by the fire.
Stephen Baker, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, said crews will determine how to restore access as containment of the fire grows and workers can assess how much must be done to remove dead trees, begin reforestation, and shore up slopes and embankments.
“It’s still too soon to discuss when specific areas of the national scenic area will reopen,” he said. “With any fire, but especially one of this size and impact, work must take place before the public can return.”
But Baker also said officials understand the community’s close connection with the Gorge and residents’ deep urge to help its natural lands heal. And the process could take awhile, he said.
“This fire will be with us a long time,” Baker said. But people don’t have to wait until the trails reopen and skies clear, before they get involved. People can also make financial contributions or volunteer for one of the many nonprofit stewards of the land. Some of the technical restoration work to come in the Gorge will require specialized training, Baker said. Volunteers can start training now so they can be ready to dig in when the forests are safe again.
“It’s not too soon to be thinking about how you can help out,” he said. “While we don’t know the full extent of damage from the Eagle Creek Fire, we do know the recovery will be a collaborative process.”
Become a steward
Friends of the Columbia Gorge: Lead a hike, clear a trail or join a rally.
Pacific Crest Trail Association: This volunteer-run group maintains the trails that cross Oregon’s Cascade mountains.
Mt. Hood National Forest Volunteering: The U.S. Forest Service has many ways to help, right here at home.
The Bureau of Land Management maintains Oregon’s public lands. Check out their volunteer opportunities.Oregon State Parks: staff a campground, visitor center or interpretative center.