Eagle Creek Fire uncovers residents’ fears for the Gorge's future

November 22, 2017

Commissioner Lori Stegmann leads a discussion of Gorge recovery efforts.
The Eagle Creek fire has uncovered deep concerns in East County that the Columbia River Gorge may not survive the return of thousands of visitors.

Three months after the wildfire burned nearly 49,000 acres in the Columbia Gorge Natopma; Scenic Area, residents of Bridal Veil and Latourell told Commissioner Lori Stegmann on Nov. 21 that they fear the resumption of tourist traffic will further harm the already fragile area.

Nearly 50 residents met Commissioner Stegmann at the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist to call for short and long-term planning of the recovery efforts. All hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, the Historic Columbia River Highway and Interstate exits, including Multnomah Falls, remain closed. And residents fear as those areas reopen, the pressure on the scarred landscape will be too much.

Resident Paul Pastor said his family will forever mark Sept. 5, 2017 as Fire Day, the day they almost lost their home to the fast-moving Eagle Creek wildfire sparked by a teenager throwing fireworks. That threat made them grateful for the first responders who saved their property, but he said, only heightened the longer-term threat to the Gorge. “We have taken for granted our landscape, our access and our culture. We all need a collective Fire Day,’’ he said. The pristine solitude of Oneonta Gorge is gone, he said, overrun by crowds unthinkable even five years ago. “Selfies killed it.’’

Residents told of three-hour back ups on the Historic Columbia River Highway, as an onslaught of sightseers, hikers, bicyclists, motorcyclists and tour buses jam roads, block driveways, park illegally, drive twice the speed limit, and toss diapers out of windows. “I love tourists,’’ Beatriz Parga said, “But not at the expense of our trees and of our forest.’’

Commissioner Lori Stegmann convened the meeting between the residents and public officials working with the Governor’s recovery group on the short and long-term recovery. Rian Windsheimer, the Oregon Department of Transportation manager for Region 1, said crews have been working double time to remove trees and rockfall to reopen portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway as early as today.

But residents balked, saying they fear the slightest opening will give access to visitors who have already transformed the Scenic area.Already, the U.S. Forest Service has had more than 5,000 contacts with people who entered the closed area illegally since the fire. 

“Culturally, when people see a sign here, they don’t necessarily think it applies to them,’’ said Lynn Burditt, area manager for the National Scenic Area for the U.S. Forest Service. Burditt has been working on the recovery, as the Forest Service works to clear and safely reopen areas. “I truly believe in public lands and public service and now we’re working with partners to find out, how well we reconnect people to the landscape,’’ she said.

The agency’s priority is to reopen the lodge area at Multnomah Falls, followed by the viewing platform and eventually, by 2019 the trail to Benson Bridge. But she acknowledged the pressure to return to the Gorge is so great it is already affecting the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the Washington side. MG Devereaux of the Oregon Parks said his agency has been overwhelmed with the public concern about the state park. Most were not damaged, but he said, they will be working with partners on the recovery.

Multnomah County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jason Gates
Multnomah County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jason Gates

Multnomah County Emergency Manager Chris Voss describes preparedness steps.
Multnomah County Emergency Manager Chris Voss describes preparedness steps.

Human safety is the priority for Multnomah County Chief Deputy Jason Gates and Chris Voss, who leads the Office of Emergency Management for Multnomah County. The County is also helping residents be trained as local weather watchers to help the National Weather Service monitor landslide, debris flow and flash flood risk in the destabilized landscape.

“Our number one concern with the sheriff's office is for the people who live here,’’ Deputy Gates told the crowd.  The sheriff’s office, which writes more than 3,000 tickets a year in the Gorge for illegal parking, said they will be working to enforce the law and respond to concerns.

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office will have saturated patrols in the area when the road re-opens to protect the fragile landscape and enforce traffic and parking laws.

Teresa O’Neill of Travel Oregon/Oregon Tourism Commission said her organization has  realized that by heavily promoting scenic areas such as the waterfalls and Smith Rock outside Bend have led to unintended consequences and that they are adjusting their promotions to be sensitive to that.

Stegmann, who was appointed to the Governor’s Wildfire Recovery Council, said she and her chief of staff Rebecca Stavenjord, will lead convening and sending notification efforts to connect residents and visitors to agencies and notify people of developments.  

"It is a privilege to serve on Governor Brown’s Eagle Creek Fire Recovery Council.  During the fire, my staff and I were actively involved with our Emergency Operations Center and are equally committed to bringing the needed resources to get communities back on their feet again,'' Commissioner Stegmann said. "It was a tremendous opportunity for local agencies to hear the concerns of residents - pre and post fire.  I look forward to building on this momentum and deepening the relationships between my office and the communities affected by the fire."

Multnomah County planners are also working with the Forest Service on the Gorge 2020 plan working to address sensitive areas.

 “We truly appreciate the work everyone has put in  addressing our concerns’’ Paul Pastor told Stegmann and the other officials. “We are so grateful.’’