Lessons Learned Columbia Riverkeeper

Reflections on the Eagle Creek Fire

By Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director

Punch Bowl Falls at Eagle Creek. Captured Oct. 15, 2017. Photo by Trip Jennings, aerial support by Lighthawk.

I was swimming with my family in the Columbia near Hood River when we saw an ominous smoke cloud grow larger and block out the sun. The Eagle Creek fire was raging.

The fire grew quickly and erratically due to strong easterlies. During the peak of the fire, I had to get to Olympia early so I drove through the Gorge on the Washington side at 4:30am. Looking south across the river, the bright lights looked like small villages dotting the hillside. But the lights were out-of-control spot fires jumping westward. One of my coworkers had to evacuate her home in Cascade Locks, and other coworkers were placed on Level Two evacuation notices. The smoke forced us inside for nearly two weeks, enough to make anyone stir crazy, especially if you’re cooped up with a four and six year old. Many people suffered from the smoke, but thanks to firefighters and first responders, there were no reported serious injuries.

What about the forest? We’ve been assessing the damage and I think we will all be surprised at the health of the forest in a few years. Yes, there are severely burned areas. And, yes, there are some trail access problems. But much of the forest did not burn intensively, and fire can regenerate forests. Post-burn ecosystems can be incredibly prolific and beautiful. I saw a red-tailed hawk soaring over Eagle Creek recently, likely scanning the forest floor for small mammals.

My reflections on the Eagle Creek fire:

  1. We love the Gorge! The outpouring of emotion during the fire demonstrates a deep love and concern for this special place. Sometimes it takes a threat to really appreciate how much something means to you.

  2. Protect our clean air. Breathing deeply is a joy. I’ll never take it for granted again. The smoky days had strong physical and emotional impacts on our communities. Many had sore throats, became depressed, or felt trapped by the heavy air. Fortunately, the air pollution was temporary. Millions of people in the world face terrible industrial pollution on a daily basis. Let’s breathe deeply and commit to protecting clean air.

  3. The forest will recover. Nature is resilient. I won’t say the fire is natural–it was started by a teenager during one of the hottest years on record. But the forests on the west side of the Cascades have historically burned and recovered without human intervention. We are not used to fires on the “wet side” because the fire intervals are 100 to 150 years.

  4. We should not use fire as an excuse for logging. While the flames of the Eagle Creek fire still burned, Representative Greg Walden introduced a bill that would waive environmental laws and allow more logging. This is deeply disappointing. Building new roads and logging the Gorge will make problems worse.


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One Response to “Lessons Learned Columbia Riverkeeper”

  1. Elizabeth Toohig says:

    Please! Do not waive environmental laws to allow more logging.