PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Residents of Portland, Oregon, awoke Tuesday to a blanket of ash and the news that a forest fire in the Columbia River Gorge had somehow leapt the mighty river overnight.
The fire – which authorities suspect was started Saturday afternoon by a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington, who tossed firecrackers off a cliff – has spread through miles of forest along both sides of the Columbia River Gorge, a beloved state treasure and National Scenic Area.
The fire has entered the Bull Run Watershed – the source of water for one in five Oregonians. It is threatening the Bonneville Dam and grid, the source of power for hundreds of thousands of homes. Residents of Troutdale, Portland’s easternmost suburb, are under a Level One evacuation order, meaning residents should watch news updates and be ready for potential evacuation.
And the fire remained at zero percent containment Wednesday morning.
Joanie Schmidgall, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, told Courthouse News she’s never seen anything like this.
“This is unprecedented fire activity for the area,” Schmidgall said. “A fire like this affects everything from the overall ecology to rare plants and even the soil chemistry.”
The Eagle Creek fire is just one of more than a dozen wildfires currently scorching Oregon. The air has been smoky on and off for weeks, prompting the National Weather Service to issue numerous air quality alerts. Fire crews are stretched thin, battling fires from the coast to the desert.
But the gorge is one of Oregon’s most celebrated outdoor destinations. When the fire started, officials issued warnings to the 153 hikers on the popular Eagle Creek trails that it was unsafe to return to their cars. Authorities told them to “shelter in place,” so they hunkered down near Tunnel Falls for an unplanned night in the wilderness with a heavy layer of smoke for a blanket.
By Sunday, the Oregon National Guard had rescued all 153 hikers. One was taken to a hospital for exhaustion and dehydration.
Over the weekend, the fire gobbled up miles of delicate habitat in the gorge – a place known for the many plant species that grow nowhere else. Glaciers shaped dramatic cliffs and left behind Ice Age seed banks of endemic plant species like the Columbia kittentail, smooth-leaf douglasia and poet’s shooting star.
On Tuesday, evacuation orders were in place for six Columbia Gorge communities, forcing residents to leave 400 homes. Residents of Springdale and Corbett were on standby with the warning to be ready to flee their homes at a moment’s notice.
And 3,400 homes in Troutdale were waiting to find out if they needed to pack up, too.
Flames moved through trees mere yards away from the historic lodge at Multnomah Falls. Fire officials said high winds and low visibility meant they could only offer a “low estimate” of the size of the fire – about 10,000 acres Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, that figure had grown to 31,000 acres.
Heat and high winds have made battling the fire nearly impossible. Crews focused instead on evacuating residents and saving historic structures.
“It’s the worst-case scenario as far as conditions goes,” Joel Ives, spokesman for the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, said in an interview. “We’re facing a full combination of heat, wind, humidity and a lack of resources. Just about the whole Western coast is on fire right now and trying to pull resources to even attempt containment is difficult.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday she had activated an additional 250 members of the National Guard. And even though crews had not yet begun work to contain the fire, she emphasized they were doing all they could.
“We are using every available tool in the toolbox that we have,” Brown said.