Cascade Locks students visit Eagle Creek burn area

Cascade Locks ExCEL Summer School students Jocelyn Carrasco Galvan, Julio Arenas and Mateo Arenas explore Dry Creek Trail on a scavenger hunt for evidence of Eagle Creek fire.

Photo by Emily Fitzgerald
Cascade Locks ExCEL Summer School students Jocelyn Carrasco Galvan, Julio Arenas and Mateo Arenas explore Dry Creek Trail on a scavenger hunt for evidence of Eagle Creek fire.

Fire wasn’t on the minds of any of the kids before Eagle Creek, but fourth-grader Andres Barron Galvan said he’d been thinking about it before, just imagining how horrible it would be.

He was with his family in the Eagle Creek campground when the fire broke out, he said, and was evacuated from the campground. His family was then evacuated again, when the area they were staying went into Level 3 – Go!

When Brenna Bell, the policy coordinator for Bark, a Mt. Hood National Forest preservation organization, asked the students at Cascade Locks ExCEL Summer School who either had to evacuate or was ready to evacuate, nearly all raised their hands.

Most could correctly explain the three evacuation levels: Level 1 – keep an eye on local news and broadcast stations (Get Ready!); Level 2 – be ready to leave at a moment’s notice (Get Set!); and Level 3 – leave immediately (Go!).

“At night we could see the flames coming up the mountain and I was like ‘oh no, it’s going to be bad’” said fifth-grader Alex Grable. He recalled receiving a Level 2 (Be Set) evacuation but that his family planned to leave due to his asthma. The family loaded their belongings in the car and were ready to go on a moment’s notice but ended up staying put.

Bell was at the school to assist in a presentation on forest fires, focusing on Eagle Creek and on how a forest becomes healthier following a major forest fire, and on a field trip to the recently reopened Dry Creek Trail to view some of the fire damage and regrowth.

The goal for the day was to help the kids heal emotionally from the Eagle Creek fire, and part of that healing was giving the kids a chance to talk about their own experiences.

Just 2.5 miles east of the Eagle Creek fire’s ignition site, Cascade Locks was one of the first areas to face mandatory evacuations when the major fire was reported in early September 2017.

Everything south of I-84 in Cascade Locks was issued Level 3 (Go!) evacuations and other areas of the small town received Level 2 (Get Set!) evacuation notices.

The Cascade Locks School staff was escorted to the building on Sept. 5, which was supposed to be the kids first day of school, to pick up school supplies so the students could start the next day at Westside Elementary School in Hood River. Students were bussed to Westside until late September, when it was deemed safe to return to their home school.

When asked, the kids talked about being evacuated, having to wear air filtration masks and being confused about what was going on; when directly asked how they felt, many said the same thing: “It was really scary.”

“Most people talking about fire just lead with facts, not about the impact it has,” said Ralph Bloemers, an attorney and the co-executive director of Crag Law Center, a Portland-based non-profit that provides legal aid for community efforts focused on environmental protection in the Pacific Northwest.

The idea for the outing came from one of the school’s volunteers, Caroline Park, who saw some of Bloemers materials on the Eagle Creek fire and suggested that he show them to the kids.

Bloemers has been working with Trip Jennings, a filmmaker for National Geographic and the founder of the Portland-based video production company Balance Media, to document the Gorge’s recovery from the Eagle Creek fire.

In February, they set up five cameras on a segment of private land within the Gorge and set each to take a photo every thirty minutes, then left them there through June. The result was a time-lapse that showed tiny green plants erupt from the scorched landscape and, nourished by the nutrients released during the fire, quickly envelope it and hide most evidence of the recent damage.

They intend to keep the cameras running for another two years, Bloemers said.

He also showed the kids footage of Trailkeepers of Oregon, a volunteer organization dedicated to trail stewardship, rebuilding the trails to be better than they were before the fire, as well as pictures taken during the fire, the burn area and the Gorge right after it was extinguished.

Jennings filmed much of the presentation and outing for an upcoming project and, in addition to the Hood River News, the educational event was covered by Apricot Irving, a writer and the founder of the oral history project Boise Voices; and Mark Larabee, a journalist and the associate director of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Bloemers’ added that he hoped his presentation and the field trip would foster emotional learning that the kids could relate to and understand, so that they left at the end of the day with less worry and more hope for the forest.

He explained how the forest itself can thrive from fire – pointing out the black backed woodpecker as an example of an animal that thrives in a post-fire landscape. These woodpeckers eat woodboring beetles that burrow into stags, or standing dead trees, after an intense forest fire.

After a quick lunch, the kids hopped into vans and chaperones drove them to the Dry Creek Trailhead.

The kids and chaperones were split into four groups at the trailhead and set off down the Dry Creek trail with a post-fire scavenger hunt and a copy of Beth Peluso’s “The Charcoal Forest: How Fire Helps Animals and Plants,” a picture-book which explores the new habitat created by fires and the species of plants and animals that inhabit it – including the black backed woodpecker.

Andres really wanted to see one on the Dry Creek hike.

His group, chaperoned by teacher Danelle Frank and Aurora del Val, hiked about halfway to Dry Creek Falls before stopping by the creek to read ‘The Charcoal Forest.”

After a short lunch, Del Val encouraged the kids to push on to the waterfall and they gleefully returned to the trail. Just a few minutes down the trail, some of the kids saw something rustling in the trees. De Val and Frank stopped and, after a lot of squinting and pointing, identified a little brown ball high up on a snag to be black backed woodpecker, almost perfectly camouflaged against the burnt wood.

Their scavenger hunt included the woodpecker and some other animals, as well as evidence of fire damage such as snags and fallen trees.

Most of the kids showed more interest in running down the trail, looking at plants, playing in the creek and laughing with their classmates than they did their scavenger hunts; which was sort of the point, Irving commented, so the kids can associate the space with a fun experience instead of a traumatic one.

When asked how it felt to be walking around the forest after the fire, third-grader Jocelyn Carrasco Galvan – who had spent most of the hike flying down the trail with her pink sunglasses – said she felt sad because everything was burnt, but hopeful. The forest is coming back.

“By walking the trails, in the forest, the students learned about the positive effects of the fire,” said Sheri Holloway, the school’s media assistant, “I believe that the students now have the knowledge to know that good things can come out of tragedy.”

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