PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – On a sunny afternoon in June, Ralph Bloemers pushed away chest-high shrubs blocking trails that few people travel in the Columbia River Gorge.
In an area above Multnomah Falls and Ainsworth State Park, Bloemers has spent six years watching the greenery rise from the ashes left in the wake of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Now, these new plants and re-sprouting trees blanket the hills, cliffs and mountain sides above the massive Columbia River.
“The vegetation is so, so happy in this post-fire area that to be able to get not a lot of blowing ferns and wild peas and everything else, I have to come in here and regularly do some vegetation maintenance,” Bloemers said as he yanked away plants from in front of one of his motion-sensor cameras.
Bloemers, a former environmental attorney who now works as the director of fire safe communities for the organization Green Oregon, spends his free time documenting the transformation in the gorge.
He’s photographed about 100 locations since the Eagle Creek Fire, finding the exact spot of each picture and capturing it year after year to show how it’s transformed.
He’s also set up cameras to record timelapse videos, and uses motion sensor cameras, like the one he cleared branches in front of, to record wildlife.
“I’ve gotten herds of elk. I’ve gotten lots of bobcats and cougars, cougars with kits, of course deer and little baby fawns,” he said.
He’s invested hours in documenting the rejuvenation of the burned area and shares the images online with the hope of showing people that the environment isn’t completely destroyed. In fact, it’s quickly bouncing back.
It’s been almost six years since the Eagle Creek Fire burned nearly 50,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge, and Bloemers feels it’s time to let people know that the landscape is regenerating.
“I felt like the best way to do that was to use the camera, use the camera over time to show how resilient these landscapes are, and how quickly they come back,” he said.
And so, in the heat and the snow, Bloemers will hike up the hillsides to capture his photos.
Without the tall canopy covering the forest floor, all sorts of vegetation has been given the chance to sprout, inviting animals in to feast on the young shoots.
When the forest changed so drastically in the Eagle Creek Fire, Bloemers said he had the sense that residents in the Columbia River Gorge, or people who visited it often, felt a sense of “solastalgia” – a type of distress caused by environmental change.
To help alleviate this, Bloemers has taken groups of elementary school students from Cascade Locks into the burned area to do what he calls “charcoal treasure hunts.”
“I think the kids being out in the forest allowed them to see how the forest was doing. And then that allowed them to move from ‘the fire is still this present thing in my life’ to understanding and moving on from it,” he said.
It’s hard, Bloemers said, when places we love change in our lifetime. He tries to remember that the Columbia River Gorge was originally created by a great disturbance – the repeated floods caused by Glacial Lake Missoula and volcanic activity – and that like the gorge, beauty can also rise from a disturbance like the Eagle Creek Fire.
“I like to think of what did we get versus what did we lose? Well, we just got a forest that’s now in a younger stage of life,” Bloemers said, “a reset for parts of the forest.”