Photo by Ben Mitchell
Wildfire torches trees between the bluff and SR 14 near Underwood Thursday afternoon. Approximately 100 fire personnel responded to the 8.5-acre blaze, which was determined to be caused by a limb from a cottonwood tree falling on a power line. The fire was mostly contained by Thursday night; crews continued to monitor hot spots Friday morning.
A wildfire sparked by a power line damaged three homes and burned 8.5 acres on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River near Underwood Thursday afternoon, but was mostly contained as of Friday morning.
Stan Hinatsu, recreation manager and public information officer at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, reported multiple homes on Circle Drive were threatened by the fire and placed on Level III (go now!) evacuations. One home received damage to its deck, one to its siding, and Hinatsu said another home received “quite a bit of smoke and water damage” to its attic after fire got under its eaves. No injuries were reported.
According to Brent Bischoff, general manager for the Skamania County Public Utility District, the fire occurred due to a limb from a cottonwood tree that landed on a PUD power line located between Washington State Route 14 and the bluff. The limb presumably fell due to the strong Gorge winds that were blowing at around 3 p.m. on Thursday when the fire started.
The fire could be easily seen across the Columbia in Hood River, rapidly climbing amongst the oaks and Douglas firs, until reaching the homes on the bluff near Underwood.
Response from authorities was swift according to Hinatsu, with local and county agencies arriving on scene along with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area division of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Crews worked on battling the fire from the ground while two helicopters hit the fire from the air with bucket drops pulled from the White Salmon River. Hinatsu said the helicopters had a big impact on the fire, quickly bringing it under control.
While firefighters scrambled to get the blaze under control, both lanes of SR 14 were shut down due to the nearby fire and traffic was routed onto the shoulder, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Hinatsu said by 9:30 p.m. the fire was approximately 80-percent contained. Approximately 100 personnel responded to the fire, but that number was greatly reduced by Friday morning. He didn’t have an exact number, but Hinatsu said he expected “at least a couple of engines” would be monitoring the fire on Friday, particularly one hot spot lingering in a talus slope on the western section of the fire.
Bischoff reported his crews were allowed into the fire area Thursday evening to remove the cottonwood limb and do additional brush clearing. He said the PUD’s automatic isolation system limited the outage to 256 customers and power was restored at around 9:15 p.m.
Devon Wells, Hood River Fire Chief, said that Thursday afternoon contained “the perfect combination of the correct wind, low humidity and nice heat hitting that southern exposure, and that was the ability of that fire to blow up big time.
“The crews did a great job getting that thing stopped,” he added.
Much of the state is dry, with Wells noting that even in the Willamette Valley, “multiple fires that were substantial” had occurred. In the Gorge, Wells stated that “we’re right on the edge of a red flag warning.”
Right now, Wells said he’s particularly worried about the impacts the hunting season could have on the fire season.
“The big concern we have now is hunting season, so there’s a lot more traffic in the wilderness, and cars are backfiring, and some people may get careless with a campfire,” he explained. “All those things are dangerous this time of year because of the dryness.”
And while school has started and people are preparing for autumn, the fire season isn’t over.
“Come September, school is back and people are into normal routines, and they say, ‘we’re not in summer anymore.’ But we’re still in summer.”