One year later: The Eagle Creek Fire

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It was hot. It was dry. A teen set off fireworks along a hiking trail in the Columbia River Gorge. 

That’s how the Eagle Creek Fire began on September 2, 2017.

The fire near the Eagle Creek Trail in Cascade Locks erupted near the already-burning Indian Creek Trail and sent a massive plume of smoke and visible bright flames over the Columbia River Gorge. 

Witness Liz Fitzgerald said the 15-year-old Vancouver boy lit a smoke bomb and threw it over a canyon near Punch Bowl Falls that afternoon.

“I leaned over and said ‘Do you realize how dangerous that is? There’s a raging forest fire 3 miles up and this whole place is super dry,'” she told KOIN 6 News in a phone interview just after the fire began.

She told a USFS officer what she saw. The teen was contacted by Oregon State Police troopers in the parking lot of the trailhead and was interviewed, but no arrests or formal charges were made at that time.

Almost immediately, the fire forced the evacuation of hikers, campers and residents in more than 100 homes. 

A total of 153 hikers took shelter at Tunnel Falls overnight and made their way back to safety the next day. One person received medical attention for exhaustion and dehydration.

By September 5, fire crews were able to save the Multnomah Falls Lodge from the quickly-growing and rapidly-approaching Eagle Creek Fire. Crews stationed themselves around the Lodge to keep the buildings from burning.

Oregon State Police troopers talk with young people after the Eagle Creek Fire erupted, September 2, 2017 (Courtesy: Kevin Marnell)

At that point the fire was only a few feet from Oregon’s most famous waterfall.

The fire wasn’t 100% contained until November 30. It officially burned 48,000 acres of forest land.

The teen was officially charged on October 19. In February, he pleaded guilty and apologized. In May he was ordered to pay $36 million in restitution.

The court can grant a full or partial satisfaction of the restitution after 10 years if the teen completes probation, does not commit additional offenses and complies with the payment plan.

Beyond the fire

Shortly before the teen was sentenced, crews finished a nearly 3-mile assessment of the trail, which leads to Punchbowl Falls, for the first time since the Eagle Creek Fire erupted. The fire was one of the worst blazes the Columbia River Gorge has seen in generations.

While the USFS crews have been working tirelessly, it could be years before the Eagle Creek Trail reopens.

Many popular trails in the Columbia River Gorge are still closed because of the damage left behind by the nearly 50,000-acre fire.

People watch the Eagle Creek Fire grow in the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017 (Facebook: Eagle Creek Fire)

Landslides, rock slides and fallen trees continue to plague the area and pose a frustrating challenge to trail keepers. 

But there are also signs of the forest healing.

“There’s a lot of green in the canopy,” USFS Officer Rachel Pawlitz told KOIN 6 News. “A lot of trees have survived. Even those that have black on them.” 

Still it might be years before the Oneonta Trail reopens. But others, like Wahclella Falls, are recovering well and officials hope to reopen it by the end of this year. 

“Wahclella is in pretty good shape!” Pawlitz said. “So we were able to identify it as one we can open.”

The upper loop at the end of the trail is still burned and messy, but the lower part with access to the falls is a different story.

“Overall we’re leaving the situation a year later stronger as an agency and as the Gorge, unified as a community,” Pawlitz said. “We’ve really stuck together and gotten through this and it’s just going to go uphill from here.”  

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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