On Aug. 21, 2017, with the Total Eclipse pulling a cosmic shade over earth, Oregonians gazed up at three-minutes of sun-blocked sky.
Less than a month later, Gorge residents would endure a season of smoke-filled skies, the sun blocked out as Eagle Creek fire raged above and around Cascade Locks and the western Gorge.
The fire erupted Sept. 2 and had tripled in size within a week. A 15-year-old boy pleaded guilty in a Hood River Circuit Court this spring to tossing a smoke bomb into the tinder-dry Eagle Creek ravine.
The toxic brown-out was the daily evidence of a 49,000-acre catastrophe that endangered lives, forced people from their homes, damaged forests, threatened the town of Cascade Locks, and closed — for months and in some cases years — trails and campgrounds along the world-famous “waterfall alley.”
“Eagle Creek” is no longer the emblem of the Portland day-hikers’ favorite forest retreat, but of the far-reaching disaster. The area is a charred remnant of the natural haven it once was.
Or is it?
Some of the trails are open, plants are emerging and the forests are greening again. In August, Cascade Locks kids, some of whom were evacuated in September-October 2017, visited burn-damaged areas and learned about new life happening there.
Foresters, naturalists and recreation and land conservation advocates are sounding hopeful notes for the future of the Eagle Creek region, indicating optimism for regeneration of flora and fauna and for the area itself as a place for humans to use and enjoy.
Hood River and White Salmon middle school students have documented reasons for that hope, in a series of short films featuring Rachel Pawlitz of the Gorge Scenic Area. Visible at voicesfromtheland.org, the films look at forest restoration, fires’ place in the natural order, seed regeneration, the future of trees, and scenic and wilderness area protection.
The films started off the “Living With Fire” symposium on Aug. 30, sponsored by Friends of the Gorge, a fact-filled evening that looked back at Eagle Creek fire and ahead to “a new paradigm” of perpetually-at-risk forests.
“We need to recognize the new paradigm and educate the public on how to avoid causing fire, and reach a better understanding of fire’s role in shaping the landscape,” said Michael Lang, conservation director of Friends of the Gorge, which sponsored the event at Columbia Center for the Arts.
“As the fires this summer (2018) we saw were also destructive, with a death in Moro, we are living with this new time,” Hood River Mayor Paul Blackburn said in introducing the panel of speakers that included Dana Skelly, Regional Fuels program manager with the U.S. Forest Service and Dan Richardson, Firewise coordinator, Underwood, Wash., Conservation District, who with his wife, Judy, provided a verbal and visual primer on steps property owners can take to prevent damage from fire in what is known as the W.U.I., or “Wooie”: the Wildlife Urban Interface.
“We have the illusion of control. We never really have control. Wherever you live, disturbance regimes exist, such as fire and flood,” Skelly said. “Where there is combustible vegetation, fire is inevitable.”
Skelly and others pointed to long-range positives to come out of disasters such as Eagle Creek.
“We are learning to adapt so we can manage (fires) so they are not the kinds that have us leaving our homes and worrying about our neighbors,” she said.
Renee Tkach of the Gorge Towns to Trails program, said, “The fire sparked collaborative partnerships, among businesses, organization, and private and public land managers.
“It brought us together in a tighter fashion,” and fostered resilience among 13 communities and six counties in two states.