About 800 people filled the bleachers an another 2,000 or so tuned in via TV and YouTube as speakers gave updates on the Eagle Creek-Indian Creek fire.
Key facts include:
Multnomah County Sheriff Jason Gates was not among the speakers, but he attended to show his support, as the fire has crossed into his county as well as Hood River County.
“We’re all in this together, and we’re here to support each other and whoever gets out of the danger zone first will come help the other and vice versa. That’s what we do, that’s how we roll.
“The way the fire works is it’s kind of on a tennis court: ‘it’s back into our county, now it’s in yours, back in evacuation zones.’ We’ve helped out Hood River and Hood River helps us. As far as support for each other, it’s been really seamless.
“People ask me, ’Is this the biggest thing you’ve ever done?’ I don’t think so, the 1996 flood were a bigger deal in terms of impact on people, but the difference is that with the floods, the skies cleared and the waters receded and you could see the end. On this what’s different is you can’t see the end. No one really knows going to happen next. It’s kind of a three-day-out monitoring the weather and seeing how things are going to go. It’s a little more open-ended. As far as the size of the disaster itself, it’s equal to or a close second to the biggest thing I’ve had to deal with in my 25 years.”
Country Club Road residents Linda and Ed Drew attended. Linda said, “I’m very frightened so I feel like any information I can gain will help put the damper on my fears.
“So many unknowns right now, that’s why we’re here: instead of listening to rumors, let’s get the information,” Ed said.
Cascade Locks Fire Chief Jessica Bennett, asked about the mood in her city, said, “It’s very hopeful. People are very positive. People have started to come back home. I don’t know if the evacuation notice has been lifted, but they’re starting to come back.
“We have Sauvies Island (fire department) who offered to come staff our station Friday so we can get a little rest. It’s pretty fantastic of them.”
Sheriff Deputy Joel Ives, who handled much of the public information in the past week, said, “There’s been so many rumors floating around, and that’s what I’ve been doing, trying to keep the message consistent. We’ll put out a message, and then get replies to that message that seem to suggest they have not read the message, that kind of thing. We are just trying to be super consistent with our message. I think people are finally understanding that the Sheriff’s Office controls the evacuations: if you don’t see it here (from HRCSO), it’s not happening. We will tell you, you will hear it from us.
“We do a lot of putting out little fires on the rumor front,” Ives said. “We got a call Wednesday from some day cares that Hood River was on Level 2 (evacuation: “get ready to leave”), and parents were streaming back to day cares to pick up their kids. And that was not true.”
Sheriff Matt English told the audience, “I understand there is a lot of unease out there in the community. We are working with our partners to monitor the fire every hour, and your source of evacuation information will be the Sheriff’s office.
“If we do any changes (in evacuation status) we’re going to be pretty conservative and allow people time to prepare.
“We appreciate the patience of those who had to leave their homes and how absolutely difficult it is to be displaced from your homes. We are constantly evaluating fire levels by working with fire crews with the idea of repopulating areas evacuated.”
He stressed that those in Level 3 areas should stay away until the status officially changes, for residents’ own safety and to avoid getting in the way of fire crews battling fire and protecting structures.
Lynn Burditt, area administrator, United States Forest Service, said, “This is one of those moments when the ground changes under your feet. It has become one of those moments for thousands of people, here in the Gorge, around the country, and around the world.
“We’re going to come together around information.
“I bring you a message of hope and possibility,” she said.
“The critical question is, ‘What are the next steps?’ It is important to think of it this way: the fire is just at phase one. We are likely to have more events. Let’s prepare ourselves for the fact that this is phase one and we need to look at how to plan for what happens next, and address the future of this part of the National Scenic Area.
“This is a moment of crisis. For some more than others. For many it will never be the same.”
Shawn Sheldon of Incident Command, said, “Multnomah Falls is still there and it still beautiful. It’s a little smoky up in the hills, but it’s still there and still as beautiful as it ever was.
“There is a lot of work to do out there. There’s going to be smoke and fire on the landscape for quite some time,” Sheldon said.
Interstate 84 “will take a lot of work,” because of fallen rocks, trees and other debris. In the fire zone, on I-84 and Highway 30, an estimated 1,500 trees have fallen.
“Bear with everyone (on fire and cleanup crews),” Sheldon said. “They’ll be doing a lot of work as quickly as they can. Be patient. It’ll go out one these days. They always do.”