A string of cool days and light winds helped firefighters make progress on the Eagle Creek wildfire in the Columbia Gorge, Incident Command spokesperson Jim Whittington said at a news briefing Monday morning in Troutdale.
“Sunday was a good day on the fire,” Whittington said. The fire grew slightly to about 34,000 acres, due in part to intentional burns set to build defense lines, and in part due to westerly winds. The combination of good weather and nearly 1,000 firefighters have helped get a handle on a blaze that federal authorities list as their top wildfire priority.
But a shift in weather could test the western defense lines. Warm dry winds from the east return Monday afternoon through Tuesday. But Whittington said the winds should be relatively light, with maximum gusts of up to 25 miles per hour. That shouldn’t cause the fire to spread significantly. And crews will welcome the cooling trend expected to begin Wednesday.
On the south edge of the fire, about 100 acres have burned in the Bull Run management area, Whittington said. But the burn hasn’t impacted Portland’s water supply. It is low intensity and has produced very little smoke.
Overall, Whittington said, firefighters are in “as good a shape as we could be. We continue to pursue a strategy to build a box around the fire.” He said a key focus is to bring resources to the south side of the fire, which is more remote.
The multi-agency task force leading the fight let some firefighters go home Monday as crews work to contain the blaze. But officials say evacuation levels remain unchanged.
“Conditions are improving,” Lieutenant Damon Simmons, a spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal said during a morning press briefing. “Things are looking good. We have had four or five days of real work that’s been done on this fire.”
Officials released five of 14 teams, each team composed of about five vehicles and their crews. But the fire remains only 7 percent contained and the air quality remains unsafe in many parts of the Gorge. Residents shouldn’t return until officials say it’s safe to do so, Simmons said.
“We want to get people back as soon as possible,” he said. “That, and assisting Oregon Department of Transportation [ODOT] as we can with getting all the roads open, are our priorities.”
Interstate 84 remains closed; Westbound lanes to open first
Interstate 84 remained closed Monday as the Oregon Department of Transportation worked to clear debris, rocks and damaged trees from the road.
The eastbound lanes of Interstate 84 are expected to remain closed at least another week, ODOT spokesperson Kimberly Dinwiddie said. “The I-84 corridor remains an active evacuation zone,” she said, “with fire burning nearby. ODOT is working with fire officials to plan when we can open the westbound lanes.”
Westbound lanes may open sooner, Dinwiddie said, as the north side of the interstate is closer to the river’s shore and has fewer hazard trees that can fall onto the freeway. In addition to damaged trees, there is a greater risk of rocks falling from slopes onto the eastbound lanes. ODOT crews have removed 2,000 of nearly 3,500 trees that were determined to be at risk of falling onto the interstate.
“We have specialized crews working to remove loose rocks along the interstate, especially near the Toothrock Tunnel,” Dinwiddie said.
While Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway are closed between Troutdale and Hood River, drivers should use Washington SR-14 (closed to large trucks) or Oregon Highways 26 and 35 as alternate routes.
Columbia River re-opens to water traffic
Also Monday, the United States Coast Guard reopened the Columbia River to all traffic, including recreational boaters. While river traffic resumes, Lieutenant Commander Laura Springer said, it’s important to avoid boating ramps in closed areas and obey road closures.
“We have no control of roads leading to boat ramps,” Springer said. “If you are a recreational boater and you want to go on the river, please check road conditions.”
Springer also urged boaters to allow at least 500 yards between them and fire crews working on the river. “We will still have active firefighting operations on the river,” Springer said. “Please give them a wide berth. They’re here to do their job and their work is essential to firefighting operations.”