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Columbia Gorge Fire Tour

Note: For the up-to-the-minute State Parks closure updates, please visit OPRD’s website.

I had the opportunity today to tour the closed Historic Columbia River Highway and a number of the closed State Parks between Vista House and Cascade Locks with the Oregon State Parks Commission.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the many firefighters who kept this fire from being even worse.  It is an incredible tribute to them that there was no loss of life, and very minimal structural damage throughout the whole burn area.

The good news is that only about 1,000 acres of State Park property sustained fire damage, and no significant structures in the State Parks were burned.  Most of the more than 46,000 acres that burned were on US Forest Service property, and while there are certainly large areas that have been burned, all is not lost.  In some places, the fire mainly burned out the underbrush and scorched the trees, and in some places everything was untouched.   I was amazed to see in some of the burned out areas that you could already see maple saplings popping up, only a month and a half after the fire started.

Our tour started at the Portland Women’s Forum, which is still open to the public, and then moved on.  Unfortunately, the Vista House is still closed, not because of any damage to it, but because it provides easy access for people to get into the closed areas and put themselves and any needed first responders at risk.  It is not clear when Vista House will be able to reopen.

(above – the view from Vista House looking east on the Columbia River at I-84 and Rooster Rock State park.)

At Multnomah Falls (managed by the US Forest Service, not a State Park),  the Benson Bridge is still there, but the bridge leading up to it is burned out and will have to be replaced next Spring. For now, the Forest Service is hoping to open the parking lot between East & West I-84 by Christmas and allow access only to the Lodge. The Lodge structure is intact, but it sustained a lot of smoke and water damage and is being repaired.  The Forest Service hopes to have the path up to the Benson Bridge open by summer. However, It will be at least a year (or more) before the switchback trails from the Benson Bridge up to the top of the falls can be made safe. A lot depends on how harsh the winter is. So much of the vegetation and moss that holds the hills together is gone and makes them susceptible to rain and slides.

Here are some pictures from Latourell Falls and Multnomah Falls.  You can see that there while a lot was burned, there is still a lot of green.

Image may contain: tree, plant, sky, outdoor and nature  Image may contain: tree, sky, outdoor and nature  Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature

 

 

As we moved through the closed areas, it was easy to see why the area is still closed.  ODOT is having to clear the road every 24 hours from fresh rock and tree falls over the road.  In a number of places, trees had fallen and damaged the retaining walls on the downhill side of the road as well.  With large numbers of unsafe trees still marked for removal, regular rock & tree falls, and uncertainty about where the next debris flow, rock fall or tree fall will occur as we head into the winter rains, it seems doubtful that the Old Columbia River Highway will be safe for regular traffic before Spring.

At Ainsworth State Park, we saw the results of incredible efforts by the firefighters.  While surrounded by burned areas, the campground was virtually untouched, and none of its structures burned.

Unfortunately, at Yeon State Park, the story was different, but again no structures were burned.  These pictures give a better view of some of the burned areas.  But, as you can see in the left photo, the fire sort of hopscotched through the area, and didn’t wipe everything out.

 

In general,  I came away from the tour with a hopeful feeling.  It is not a moonscape, and it will be an incredible laboratory to watch nature regenerate itself.  I was impressed with the cooperation and coordination between the US Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department.  We have some great public servants working hard to make this iconic area safe and open for the future enjoyment of all. In the meantime, we all need to be patient and allow them to work and not interfere while they scale the rocks, fell trees and put up rock catches to keep us all safe.

Seth Miller