The Herman Creek wildfire that scorched the eastern edge of Cascade Locks this week was “fully contained” by Friday morning. Clean-up includes flattening of old wood piles on Port of Cascade Locks land that had caught fire. Heavy equipment was used Friday to spread out the slash and make sure all the embers are out, said Rod Nichols of the state Department of Forestry.
Meanwhile the fire, and its extensive damage to the forest as well as to town, has rekindled an old debate over forest management.
“We need a general cleanup of the dead and dying trees,” said Mayor Ralph Hesgard.
In fact, he and the City Council sent letters several months ago to state and federal legislators asking that they push for removal of stands of diseased and bug-infested trees removed from within the Mt. Hood National Forest and Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The policy of the U.S. Forest Service in recent years has been to leave these properties largely unmanaged to protect the ecosystem and the habitat of endangered species.
But Hesgard said that approach has endangered the rural community with a population of 1,140 residents. To underscore his argument, he pointed out that state fire officials have determined that the fire started when a dead tree fell across a powerline. The sparks from that contact about 11 a.m. on Tuesday ignited dry grass about 300 yards south of Interstate 84 on Herman Creek Road. A stiff breeze quickly sent those flames leaping across the freeway and racing through meadows and wooded areas along the eastern edge of town.
Within the next 24 hours, the blaze spread to more than 450 acres and destroyed three structures, including a former bed and breakfast that was being rented by three individuals, an abandoned house and a barn. The fire also threatened dozens of other homes and 200 people were evacuated from neighborhoods along Forest Lane.
A traffic snarl ensued for law enforcement officials when both lanes of I-84 were shut down abruptly on Sept. 2 between Hood River and Troutdale. One motorist was apparently frightened by the approaching flames and unhitched a travel trailer that was abandoned in an eastbound lane. As the line of stranded cars quickly grew, the Port of Hood River gave free passage to about 7,000 cars and trucks between 12:30 p.m. and midnight, losing $6,585 in revenue. On Wednesday, that count was even higher at 12,867 vehicles and a loss of about $11,000 — but port authorities said public safety was their first priority.
“This is a courtesy that we do when there is an unforeseen emergency,” said Linda Shames, port finance director.
Temperatures soared above 90 degrees both days as Hood River City Police Chief Tony Dirks and his officers manned the junctions of Highway 35 and Interstate 84, blocking vehicles from entering the freeway and directing them toward alternate routes.
Meanwhile, across the Columbia River the eastbound lanes of State Route 14 quickly came to a stand-still. Vehicles were backed up from the Hood River Tollbridge to Home Valley and several minor accidents occurred. The Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State Police helped Klickitat and Skamania county law enforcement officials direct traffic at major intersections and allowed only local access over the Bridge of the Gods.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler supervised the evacuation of Cascade Locks residents within the fire zone. He was assisted by Oregon State Troopers, Hood River police and deputies. These officials alerted citizens to the pending danger and requested that they leave the premises. Wampler also called for help to corral a panicked horse that was running loose through the fire zone after escaping from its burning pasture.
Evacuees were brought to overnight shelters at the local high school and across the river in Stevenson. However, water problems arose when the city was forced to supplement the town’s reservoir with untreated water to fight the fire. Because of health concerns, the Cascade Locks shelter was closed and several major stores, including Wal-Mart, Costco and Fred Meyer, brought shiploads of distilled drinking water to the town. Some area motels also offered free or reduced rates for displaced residents. The Cascade Locks Community Church prepared sandwiches and other foods to serve more than 200 firefighters who came from across the state to lend assistance after Gov. Ted. Kulongoski invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act on Tuesday afternoon. As state and federal firefighters tackled flames in the underbrush, county fire agencies banded together to protect dwellings. By Tuesday evening, there were enough tankers to station one next to each threatened residence.
At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, the Oregon Department of Transportation reopened one lane of the freeway in each direction. The speed limit was set at 45 miles per hour while state crews worked to replace destroyed guardrails. About that same time, residents were allowed to return home and resume their regular routines. By that evening, firefighters had drawn a line around 470 acres, about two-thirds of which was burned.