A third structure fire in a week occurred Saturday in Hood River.
Aug. 11 saw a destructive blaze in a Hood River residential neighborhood, a garage fire in a rural area west of Hood River came on Aug. 14, and the latest was at the edge of a cliff, mostly unreachable by foot.
Steep, rugged terrain has slowed mop-up work on the Westcliff Fire. On Monday, firefighters held the fire within the containment lines, and were able to improve control to 75 percent. Evacuation orders were reduced, however some areas remain under a Level 1 (Be Ready) evacuation. Updates are available from the Hood River County Sheriff at www.facebook.com/....
Safety is the highest priority. Because of the cliffy nature of the terrain, firefighters are being extra cautious in their actions on the fire. Potential rolling debris is a concern as crews grid through the fire interior. They must constantly be watching for crew members below and hazards above. During mop-up, they dislodge material and mix water with dirt and burning fuels, thus increasing the potential for hazards to shift downslope.
Timber fallers were able to fall several trees which still had live fire burning within the canopy. A Type 1 helicopter was then used to drop water on the flames to reduce the heat and allow firefighters to fully extinguish the heat. The trees fell within the existing fire perimeter.
Resources on the fire today were four wildland engines, a pair of timber fallers, and a 20-person crew. Two helicopters, a Type 1 and Type 3, were available as needed to support the suppression activities. The engines and crew will return to the fire tomorrow.
Union Pacific train traffic is moving through the area slowly, coordinating with firefighters as it enters the area. Firefighters are also watching to ensure no debris has rolled onto the tracks.
Saturday’s 11:30 p.m. fire destroyed Lucy’s House, a venerable structure named for Lucy Cranmer, former owner of Vagabond Inn (now Westcliff Lodge). Lucy’s is accessible down a 200-foot path and footbridge and offers bird’s-eye views of the Columbia.
“It’s a piece of history. We’re sad to lose it, but fortunately no one was hurt and our guests were all okay,” owner Grant Polson said of Lucy’s House, which was built in 1982 as a retirement home for Lucy, who died in 2007. Lucy founded Vagabond with her husband, Clarence, but “never really retired,” Polson said. Polson owns the house, but it is managed as a vacation rental by Arrived.
The fire spread east to trees and brushy areas, and Westcliff Lodge was evacuated starting at about midnight, with most guests relocating either to Portland or to other accommodations in Hood River, according to Polson.
Helicopters spent Sunday and Monday pouring water on the cliff in front of Westcliff Lodge, providing a show for guests who began to check in starting at noon Sunday. Columbia Gorge Hotel, just east, had been put on evacuation notice but was unaffected.
Saturday at midnight at Westcliff Lodge, Byron Kurt and Julie Alston thought the pounding at their door was a joke.
Post-ceremony wedding festivities at the lodge were, as these things go, a bit loud, so the couple was sleepy and skeptical. They were in town for the Naish StandUp Paddle Challenge, where they coordinate registration for the event at Waterfront Park.
Alston replied, “Just go away!” to a loud knock at the door and a man yelling, “You need to get out now! You need to evacuate!”
“We thought somebody was drunk and joking around,” said Kurt, from Dana Point, Calif.
Then it came again.
“You need to evacuate! The fire is heading this way!”
They opened the door to a Hood River Police officer who was making his way to each door, starting at the west end of the building, alerting Westcliff guests.
“We knew it was kind of serious,” said Kurt. “He (the officer) was really good about it.”
Alston and Kurt had their belongings gathered and were out in less than five minutes. They went with other guests to the Walmart parking lot, some of whom found other lodging on their own or with help from Westcliff. Alston and Kurt found a practical option: they drove to Portway Avenue and parked next to Waterfront Park and slept in their car.
“Shortened the commute that morning,” Kurt joked.
The fire is under investigation by Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), according to West Side Fire Marshal Jim Trammell, who said Monday that indications suggest the first started below Lucy’s House and that the structure was a victim of the fire.
The newly-married couple staying in Lucy’s House lost all their wedding gifts, passports, and the wedding dress. A GoFundMe account has been set up for Hannah and Trevor Vorhies; at press time donors had given $4,810 toward a $3,000 goal.
Westcliff Road was closed most of the day Sunday from Charburger west as local firefighters and Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Land Management firefighters battled the fire on the ground and from the air.
ODF, Hood River Fire and EMS, West Side Fire, and Mosier Fire continued working Monday to contain the Westcliff Fire, and all but ODF stood down by Monday morning. The fire is located northwest of Hood River near Westcliff Drive, between Interstate 84 and the Columbia River, and the source (in West Side) and burned areas are at an intersection of Hood River Fire and EMS, West Side, and ODF jurisdictions.
The fire spread from the structure into the wildland, initially burning approximately five acres. Cool temperatures, low wind, and increased humidity moderated fire behavior through the night and this morning, according to an ODF press release. The fire is burning in a rugged area of cliffs, making firefighter access difficult. Steep terrain on the east flank of the fire, with large trees and snags and significant down woody material is a safety concern for firefighters working below as rolling debris moves downslope.
Resources on the fire include structural and wildland engines and structural tenders. Two helicopters took turns dipping into the Columbia and working to douse the fire, focusing on getting water on the east flank of the fire in the cliffy area where access is difficult. Oregon Department of Forestry is being assisted by the U.S. Forest Service Mt. Hood National Forest and Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Union Pacific initially closed the railroad lines north of the fire as a precaution, though they have been re-opened. Firefighters worked near the tracks to establish containment lines.
The weather forecast calls for continued dry, hot days. Wildland fuels are extremely flammable under these conditions. Regulated Closure is in effect for ODF’s Central Oregon District.
Specific restrictions can be found at www.ODFcentraloregon.com.