Fires are raging throughout the western Columbia River Gorge, burning thousands of acres, forcing evacuations, and choking transportation corridors.
Cascade Locks, centermost in the ring of wildfires, lies only half a mile east of the largest blaze, the Eagle Creek Fire, and just eight miles from the month-old Indian Creek Fire.
The human-caused Eagle Creek Fire evaded containment and swelled to more than 10,000 acres since it broke out Saturday afternoon.
Several hundred Cascade Locks residents evacuated their homes beginning Sunday, and Oregon Department of Transportation closed Interstate 84 at 6 p.m. Monday, as the last of Labor Day weekend traffic tried to get home. The freeway remained closed Tuesday morning, and ODOT diverted traffic onto Highway 35 and to Washington Highway 14.
The fire spread Monday night in what the National Weather Service called an “incredible” 12 miles west to Crown Point, in steep terrain near Larch Mountain, according to a NWS social media post.
Smoke has clouded horizons and flakes of ash have fallen from the sky as far as Hood River. Air quality will fluctuate, so all those sensitive to the poor conditions should avoid heavy exercise outdoors.
While firefighters gathered over the weekend rescuers worked Saturday and Sunday to bring to safety 153 hikers stranded south of Punch Bowl Falls.
“It was an unprecedented situation and it worked out really well, especially given the area, as it’s pretty remote,” said Sgt. Chris Guertin with Hood River County Sheriff’s Office.
Three people were airlifted Saturday afternoon on Ruckel Ridge trail, trapped by fire, just west of Eagle Creek trail, in an unrelated incident. All three were uninjured.
“The risk was their not being able to get out,” Guertin said.
Swathes of trees at scenic destinations like Punch Bowl Falls and Multnomah Falls have been scorched, and the lodge at Multnomah was threatened by fires Tuesday morning.
The fire jumped the Columbia River to Washington overnight, starting a 10-20-acre fire on the south side of Archer Mountain, across from Ainsworth Park in Oregon.
Lt. Damon Simmons, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office, said embers carried on the wind sparked the spot fire.
“The biggest danger isn’t necessarily the fire pushing through — it’s the ash fall,” Simmons said Tuesday morning.
Ground firefighter crews are battling the Eagle Creek Fire, Simmons said, but aircraft were holding off this morning on dropping water due to serious visibility issues the smoke caused. Highly-trained crews are working to protect the Bonneville Power Administration power line just east of Cascade Locks, and clearing defensible spaces around evacuated homes closest to the fire, as well as putting fire-resistant wraps on forest structures on the Eagle Creek trail and other areas.
Evacuation orders were placed on Cascade Locks, beginning late Saturday, and the Red Cross set up a shelter at Skamania County Fairgrounds for displaced residents.
As the fire spread west into Multnomah County over Labor Day Weekend, evacuations took effect in Dodson and Warrendale. A Red Cross shelter opened at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham.
Transportation officials closed Interstate 84 from Hood River to Troutdale Monday night. Truck traffic is prohibited on Highway 14 in Washington. Alternative routes via U.S. Highways 26 and 35 have remained open.
Illegal use of fireworks is being investigated as a possible cause of the Eagle Creek Fire.
Oregon State Police Sgt. Kaipo Raiser told the News Sunday afternoon a suspect has been identified and fireworks were being considered with “a strong likelihood” as the cause.
Raiser declined to state the age or name of the suspect. He said OSP and other law enforcement agencies plan to meet with the Hood River District Attorney's Office to discuss next steps.
Fighting the Fire: Basics (Tuesday morning report)
Acreage: 10,000+ Eagle Creek Fire, 850 Indian Creek Fire
Unified Command: Pacific Northwest Team 6, Oregon State Fire Marshal U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry.
Eagle Creek: 4 crews, 29 engines, 14 structural task forces, 5 helicopters Indian Creek: 1 crew, 1 helicopter, 3 dozers, 2 water tenders.
Total staff: Eagle Creek: 457, Indian Creek: 60
At 12:45 p.m. Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it has authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for the Eagle Creek Fire burning in Hood River County.
The FEMA Acting Regional Administrator Sharon Loper determined that the fire threatened such destruction as would constitute a major disaster. Loper approved the state of Oregon’s request for a federal Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) on Sept. 3.