U.S. Senator Ron Wyden urges Congress to invest more in wildfire prevention

September 8, 2017

EAGLE CREEK PRESS BRIEFING 9:00 AM

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden praised first responders Friday for battling the Eagle Creek Fire and called for more federal funding to prevent wildfires.

“This fire has hit our state like a wrecking ball,” Senator Wyden said during the press briefing in Troutdale.

The U.S. Senate approved additional emergency funding Thursday that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, providing relief to help firefighters in Oregon. Firefighting costs nationwide are on track to exceed budgeted amounts by at least $300 million this year. That money is much needed, Senator Wyden said, but not enough to get at the heart of the problem.

“The (funding) really doesn’t deal with the prevention side, and that is the Achilles heel of our broken, flawed, common-sense-defying system of fighting fires,” Senator Wyden said. “This is money to make sure these wonderful people are going to have the dollars from the Forest Service this year.”

As the Eagle Creek Fire continues to burn, Senator Wyden said, Oregonians must prepare for bigger, hotter and more powerful wildfires. “These are not our grandfather’s wildfires,” he said.

Senator Wyden said he’s working with Congressional leaders to secure long-term funding to prevent wildfires.

“The funds we secured yesterday are a big plus right now, but because we haven’t seen fires of this magnitude, we have got to use this moment,” he said. “I’m not going to let days pass by without getting at the heart of the problem, which is focusing on prevention.”

The Fight Continues

Crews fighting the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge are making progress, and the weather is helping, United States Forest Service spokesperson Traci Weaver said during the Friday morning briefing. The fire is 7 percent contained, and clearer skies have allowed greater use of planes and helicopters to battle the blaze.

“The weather has moderated greatly, and the smoke has lifted,” Weaver said in Troutdale, where the sky was clear enough to see across the river to Washington for the first time this week. Chinook helicopters dropped thousands of gallons of water yesterday, targeting spot fires at the western edge of the blaze. Those drops will continue today, and retardant has not been used.

United States Forest Service spokesperson Traci Weaver during a Sept. 8 briefing on the Eagle Creek Fire

“Water is more effective than retardant in fighting fire in steep areas with this type of vegetation,” Weaver said. “If there is a place where retardant is more effective, we will use it.”

The fire has burned 33,382 acres, but has expanded little in the past two days. Crews are focused on protecting developed areas, Interstate 84 and the Bull Run Watershed. “Other areas south of the Gorge are steep and difficult for crews to access,” Weaver said. Crews are working to dig a line and create a buffer east of Corbett, to protect residents there in case winds shift direction, as is predicted for next week. Hotter weather is also forecast next week, which increases fire risk.

Weaver said 911 firefighters are working on the fire. Tomorrow, on Saturday, newly appointed U.S. Forest Service Director Tony Tooke will tour the fire zone tomorrow. And a Type 1 incident management team, the nation’s highest level, will take over command.

“That team is coming in due to the complexity of this fire,” Weaver said. “They will likely be here for the next two weeks.”

While crews are making progress, Weaver said it will take time before many areas in the Gorge reopen to the public.

“This fire is not a short-term event. A lot of rehabilitation work will be needed after the fire,” Weaver said. “We know many people want to help with that effort. We will need to stabilize things after the fire before volunteers come in to help.”

The United States Coast Guard continues to control commercial traffic along the stretch of the Columbia River where flight crews fill buckets to drop on the blaze and has asked recreational boaters to stay at least 500 yards from the action. “Firefighting is dynamic, so we’re just asking them to give them a wide berth,” said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Laura Springer.

 

Evacuation levels unchanged

Fire evacuation levels in east Multnomah County remained unchanged Friday, Sheriff Mike Reese said at the Sept. 8 briefing. First responders want to make sure the fire is out in evacuated areas and there is no risk of the fire returning before evacuees come home.

He urged residents to sign up for evacuation notices at PublicAlerts.org or follow the Sheriff’s Office’s social media accounts.

“We continue intensive patrol efforts twenty-four-seven in the evacuated area to keep property and the public safe,” Reese said. Law enforcement patrols reported spot fires overnight in the Latourell and Palmer Mill Road areas of the Gorge, he said. Spot fires can be started by airborne embers and spread the fire’s growth if unchecked. Reese thanked evacuees for their patience while first responders put out the fire and make sure it is safe for them to go home.
 

Road Conditions

Interstate 84 remained closed Friday as the Oregon Department of Transportation assesses the risk of falling trees and rocks. But a damage assessment of roads, bridges and tunnels in the path of the Eagle Creek Fire offered some good news.

“Most reports are in, and we haven’t seen significant damage to the structures themselves,” said ODOT Region One Director Rian Windsheimer.

Engineers have evaluated 60 to 70 bridges that carry Interstate 84 over inlets of the Columbia River and found them structurally sound, said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. The Tooth Rock Tunnel, part of the interstate two miles east of Bonneville Dam, is also safe, he said.

ODOT assesses the risk along slopes edging Interstate 84 as the Eagle Creek Fire burns

But thousands of burned and burning trees and unstable rocks on slopes above I-84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway still pose a danger. Without sufficient healthy roots on slopes and inclines, there’s little structure to hold damaged roots and rocks in place, Hamilton said.

Experts continued Friday to evaluate some slopes, while others remain inaccessible because of fire. Hamilton said ODOT cannot yet predict when the roads might reopen, but he said they plan to open westbound lanes first.

Alternate routes are Washington State Route 14, which runs along the Gorge and is open to all vehicles except large trucks, and Oregon Highway 26.