PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon State Police say a firework likely caused the Eagle Creek Fire and a suspect has been identified but not charged.
153 hikers made their way back to safety on Sunday after taking shelter overnight from the massive fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge. Everyone was accounted for and one person received medical attention for exhaustion and dehydration.
The fire near the Eagle Creek Trail in Cascade Locks erupted near the already-burning Indian Creek Trail — a 1,090-acre fire only 10% contained — sending a massive plume of smoke and visible bright flames over the Columbia River Gorge, forcing the evacuation of hikers, campers and residents in more than 100 homes.
The U.S. Forest Service said the fire is now 3,000 acres and growing as of Sunday afternoon. It’s 0% contained. Several structures, including 100-year-old historic buildings, are threatened but firefighters are working to contain and preserve those structures.
On Sunday morning, the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office announced approximately 130 homes are now under a level 3 evacuation order, meaning residents need to leave immediately. The rest of the city is under level 2 and 1 evacuation orders.
Governor Kate Brown, at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act to help fight the Eagle Creek Fire.
“Crews are deployed throughout Oregon fighting some of the most intense wildfires in the nation,” Brown said. “The swift action of fire crews responding to the Eagle Creek Fire and heroic efforts of our Oregon National Guard saved lives, and I thank the crews still on the front lines who are working actively to contain the fire.”
The Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Skamania County Fairgrounds for anyone who needs a place to stay. Residents from Cascade Locks, about 1/2 a mile from the fire, gathered at the fairgrounds, where they told KOIN 6 News they did this before in 2003.
Among the 20-50 human evacuees staying at the shelter are 15 cats and 2 dogs.
As of Sunday night, according to a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman, 283 people and 15 businesses on the southern side of Cascade Locks were under level 3 evacuation notice, meaning they should’ve already evacuated by now. Also, 118 people and 10 businesses in the town were under level 2 evacuation notice, meaning they should be prepared to evacuate at any time, while 200 others and 4 other businesses were under level one evacuation notice.
One 13-year old resident said he and his family heard a knock at the door around 3 a.m. Sunday morning. It was from a Sheriff’s County deputy, telling them they had 30 minutes to evacuate their homes.
Another witness took a look at the fire around 2 a.m. Sunday.
“I saw trees exploding and the sky turn red,” she told KOIN 6 News. “I saw the moon turn blood red and I tell you what: it was overwhelming. It was like walking into hell.”
A Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the fire has reached inside the county and that they issuedlevel one evacuation notices to residents of Bonneville, Dodson and Warrendale. The spokesman also said there’s still significant room between the fire and Multnomah County residents, but with the possibility of shifting winds, they want people to be prepared.
“It’s hot, it’s dry, the wind is moving fairly good through here so we expect the fire will move fairly rapidly once it does move,” the spokesman said.
The U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said I-84, which runs through Cascade Locks, hasn’t been closed yet, but that the Oregon Department of Transportation remains prepared to shut it down if need be.
The Hood River County Public Health Department urged residents to take precautions from the smoke. The Oregon DEQ Air Quality Index doesn’t measure the air in Hood River or Cascade Locks, but the nearest monitor, in The Dalles, says the air quality is moderate. The DEQ’s 5-3-1 index can also help residents gauge air quality based on visibility.
A U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said 153 hikers took shelter at Tunnel Falls overnight Saturday after getting safely away from the flames. The National Guard airdropped supplies to them. The group, which was caught at the falls between two of the fires, hiked out Sunday morning with help from Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue and Mountain Wave SAR. Hikers estimated it was a 14-mile hike to the safe zone.
Buses transported the hikers from the trail head to the Cascade Salmon Fish Hatchery, where reunited with their family members. According to Mountain Wave SAR, all of the hikers were bused to the fish hatchery by 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Kenneth Utter spent the night sheltered at the falls and reunited with his family this morning. He said he first heard the fire before seeing it. Then he turned the corner and caught a glimpse of the fire.
“You see the smoke and the heat just kind of hit you like a wall,” he said.
Joel Ives, a deputy sheriff with the Hood County Sheriff’s office, said three hikers off the trail were rescued by a Blackhawk.
Eagle Creek campers from Portland stood in awe of the fire blazing closer and closer to the campsite they evacuated about 10 minutes before they spoke with KOIN 6 News.
“We were hiking Old Highway and an officer came zooming down and told us to evacuate,” Art Kohn said.
Another camper, Noah Clark, said, “We just go out and we see all this smoke billowing out and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is really close to our campsite.'”
The site sits at one of the jumping off points to the steep Eagle Creek Trail, with the flames on the ridge just a mile from their site. Luckily, they were able to get their belongings out in time, although Jane Clark said it “took us awhile to get packed up.”
“That is crazy,” camper Aidan Childs said. “Camping trip gone awesome and horribly wrong at the same time.”
Jane Clark told KOIN 6 News the campground was completely empty when they hurried back to grab their stuff. The trail had already been closed by the time they reached the campground.
“That’s a little bit scary because you couldn’t see the fire but you could smell the smoke,” Clark said. “We didn’t know the fire was as close as it is. If we did, we would have moved a lot faster than we did.”
The Clark family stood and watched the fire torch the ridge from the safety of the parking area near Highway 84 for quite some time. They’re thankful they made it out safely.
“The police were terrific,” Art Kohn said. “They were organized and got us out quick.”
KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this story.
Below is a courtesy video from Christina Hendgen of the smoke over the Columbia Gorge shortly after the fire began on Saturday afternoon.