Wet weather keeps Eagle Creek Fire in check, but challenges remain

September 10, 2017

Jim Whittington, fire information officer for the Bureau of Land Management
The footprint of the Eagle Creek Fire remained largely unchanged after a weekend of wetter weather and calmer winds, giving firefighters more time to dig containment lines, go on the attack and address hot spots near threatened structures, fire officials said Sunday, Sept. 10, during a media briefing.

And even with conditions expected to dry out -- and become more volatile through Tuesday, with winds expected to shift back to the west --  fire officials say those winds aren’t expected to be as forceful as the gusts that propelled the fire down the Columbia River Gorge last weekend.

Some 1,000 fire personnel are still working the 33,000-plus-acre fire, the nation’s top firefighting priority and now under the command of a Type 1 incident management team. Steep terrain and damper ground on higher elevations are helping that work and keeping the fire from spreading as rapidly as it had, said Jim Whittington, a fire information officer for the Bureau of Land Management.

“The chances of us getting into a prolonged drying spell now, as we’re starting to get to that seasonal change, is probably lessening day by day,” Whittington said. “That takes some of the anxiety off of us.”

There’s still no prediction for when hundreds of evacuees can return to their homes. Evacuation levels for the fire, 7 percent contained, remain unchanged. A community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, at McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheatre, 2126 SW Halsey St., in Troutdale.

Crews attack western edges of fire and highway corridors

Whittington said firefighters are working to “build a box” around the fire and even out some of its jagged edges. Beyond that “box,” he said, crews are also creating worst-case contingency lines. Drier weather expected over the next couple of days might actually help, allowing “burn out” fire lines to burn more easily and cleanly.

Fire crews are directly attacking flames and hot spots along highways, including Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway, so they can reopen as soon as possible, Whittington said.

Lt. Rich Tyler, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office
Crews are also attacking the fire’s western edges and working south, he said, toward the Bull Run Watershed. He said crews will push as hard as they can as far as the steep terrain in that part of the fire allows. Going into that terrain means having medical and extraction plans at the ready in case fire conditions suddenly shift.

“Our firefighters are in really great shape,” he said. “But they’re not in mountain goat shape. So when we get to some of those areas, we have to choose another tactic or another strategy.”

He said there may be some small growth and fresh smoke along a pocket near the Bull Run Watershed where the fire boundary turns south, but crews aren’t expecting a rapid surge. In general, the steep terrain, which limits the amount of dry fuel that the fire can consume, will limit the fire’s spread.

On one part of the fire’s eastern section, near Herman Creek, crews are watching a slow advance that’s pushed the fire’s boundaries past what current maps show, Whittington said. Crews are working to keep flames from crossing Herman Creek.

Wind shift this week will test work to safeguard structures

Whittington and Lt. Rich Tyler, a spokesperson for the Oregon State Fire Marshal, both said work to protect structures and help evacuees return home remains a top priority.

Chief Deputy Jason Gates of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office
Crews are stamping out embers and building containment lines around structures, and trying to ensure that infrastructure such as power lines are operable. But winds blowing east to west this Tuesday will test that work.

“We’re very aware of the inconvenience and anxiety we’re causing folks,” he said. “If we can just ask for patience, we’re working on it as hard as we can, and as quickly as we can.”

Tyler said crews that specialize in saving structures are working closely with wildland crews to coordinate around containment lines.

“We’re working from the houses, from the structures, away into the fire zone, ensuring your homes are not damaged,” he said.

Tyler said he saw signs of hope on his drive to the briefing from the fire basecamp.

“It’s the first time I was able to see across the river this week. The smoke was lifted. It was clear,” he said. “And I got to see our Gorge in a way that I knew things were getting back to normal… We’re seeing progress. We’re going to get back to normal. It’s going to take time.”

Security patrols continue 24/7 in evacuated areas

Jason Gates, chief deputy for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, also asked neighbors in evacuation zones to keep patient and stay away while fire crews are out working.

Hyacinth, left, a therapy dog with the Trauma Intervention Program of Portland/Vancouver, and Zipporah, right, a therapy dog with Hope Animal Assisted Crisis Response.
“When there are civilians in those areas while those firefighters are in the process of protecting your homes, those folks pose a burden to that process,” he said. “Those folks pose a potential safety hazard to those fire crews. We ask you to be very cognizant of that.”

He said sheriff’s deputies and other staffers understand what’s at stake since many of their own colleagues are also affected by the evacuation orders. Gates promised that deputies and other law enforcement personnel, including officers from the Oregon State Police and Portland Police Bureau, were working all day and all night to patrol their neighborhoods.

The law enforcement presence in areas such as Corbett is up roughly 700 percent, Gates said. He said there have been no confirmed reports of burglary or looting, but that “a couple of opportunists” were found in the affected areas and quickly removed.

Officers have been instructed to maintain 24-hour presence in affected neighborhoods. If officers on patrol need to take a break, Gates said, they can’t leave their posts until another car of officers arrives in that neighborhood first.

We’re absolutely committed to making sure we’re up in those communities, providing that robust security until we get you back onto your homes, and beyond,” Gates said. “We want just as much as you do to get you back into your homes.”