Labor Day Weekend 2017 was upon us, and we were excited not only for a 3-day weekend, but also an opportunity to be out in nature and not needing to fret about internet connectivity. Three days to hike, bike, explore, and disconnect (hopefully!). We decided to spend the long weekend in Portland’s Columbia River Gorge area, a nature oasis just outside of Portland. With everything filling-up, we were happy that we were able to find space by splitting our nights between two campgrounds. Successfully booking campground space just 1 week prior to Labor Day was nothing short of a victory, especially since camping in California typically requires a 6-12 month advance booking, depending on the campground, and killing any sense of spontaneity.
On Saturday afternoon, we checked into our hilltop campsite in the Eagle Creek campground, and leisurely made lunch. Around 2pm, we were itching to get out and explore. From our campground, there was a trailhead for the popular Eagle Creek hike that led to the “punch bowl falls”, and this was one of the highlights for staying at this park. Since we were getting such a late start, we decided to save the “punch bowl” hike for Sunday morning, and grabbed our bikes to ride down the hill and explore a couple fish hatcheries we had seen during the drive up. The first hatchery was right at the entrance to the Eagle Creek park, and contained hundreds of thousands of baby salmon in parallel pools. It was entertaining to watch the baby salmon test their natural instinct to jump upstream, as they attempted to leap up the water pumping into their respective pools. We continued down the river a couple of miles to check-out the Bonneville Dam and fish hatchery. This hatchery was much larger and contained numerous different species of fish in designated zones.
As we were contemplating were to ride to next, I heard a low flying helicopter and looked up to see it fly overhead while dangling something from a long rope. My initial thought was that someone had been injured in the woods, and the rope was somehow related to a search and rescue. I eyed the helicopters path, and watched it fly towards a pristine white, fluffy, cloud. Something struck me as weird about the situation, but I couldn’t immediately register what that was. Knowing that it seemed of interest, but not why, I pointed out the helicopter to Cay, which had now disappeared beyond the white cloud. As we continued to watch the horizon, it slowly registered that the “cloud” was growing from the ground, and happened to be the only cloud in an otherwise perfectly blue sky. At nearly the same instant, dread registered, as we turned to each other and wondered out loud if there was a fire in the woods? Forest fires are not something that either of us were accustomed to, but it was something we were beginning to have a familiarity with, as Northern California and Oregon had been plagued with fires throughout our August travels. So much so, that we had been revising our route to avoid badly affected areas along the way.
“If it is something burning, shouldn’t the smoke be dark?” I posed rhetorically, knowing that neither of us would know the answer with any certainty. As we watched this “cloud” grow larger, we took to our phones to see if there was something on social media or in the news outlets about a new fire in the Columbia River Gorge. The cars around us continued to come in and out of the fish hatchery, and the Gorge seemed otherwise peaceful. The time was about 4:15pm, and we found nothing that would indicate a new fire. We continued to watch the growing “cloud” for a couple of minutes, and became pretty certain it was coming from the area of our campground. With mounting concern, we hoped it was nothing, but knew we wanted to get back to the campsite to make sure.
So, we jumped back on our bikes and headed for the trail that would take us back east along the river and up the hills of the Gorge. As we made our way, the “cloud” had tripled in size, and much to our dread, it became obvious that this was no “cloud”. Now openly anxious, we doubled our efforts to speed back. Wishing that I had my road bike, I mentally cursed how heavy and clunky my mountain bike was and how difficult it was to climb hills with any speed. We reached the pass that would require us to carry our bikes down 3 stories of stairs to the base, and finally rolled to the entrance of The Eagle Creek park, where we were greeted by a mushrooming “cloud” that formed an umbrella over the entire area.
Just outside of the Eagle Creek hatchery we had visited shortly before, we saw that an officer had pulled over a young man, and he sat on the curb, shirtless. I wondered if it was somehow related, but there was no sense of urgency from anyone in the group. The shirtless guy sat there looking bored, and the officer appeared to be calling in the license plate number to dispatch. Cay assured me not to worry, it was likely a “traffic stop”. Without giving it another thought, we road past that scene and up the last hill to our campsite, not knowing what we would find.
When we arrived, we were immediately met by the camp hosts (a husband and wife), who were standing guard at the entrance. Nearly out of breath, I pointed to the sky and asked if they knew what was going on and if we needed to evacuate? We were told to pack-up to be ready to go, but hold in place for further instructions. They confirmed that it was in fact a forest fire, which had just started within the last couple of hours, and was located about a mile in on the Eagle Creek trail. The trail we had debated hiking just a few hours prior.
At our site, we readied our camper to move and watched the growing smoke. We spotted several patrol cars come and go from the sheriff’s office, and saw a team of rangers loaded with hiking gear embark on the trail. We watched with apprehension as one patrol car made the rounds to stop at each campsite. When he approached ours, he informed us that everyone needed to evacuate immediately. With it being Labor Day weekend, we asked him if there was a make-shift camping lot for us to evacuate to, perhaps in the parking lot of some public building or something? One officer told Cay, “your guess is as good as mine”, and with that, we were left to flea while wondering where we would find space to spend the night out of harm’s way.
Without more information on the fire, or how big it had become, and not knowing the area, we checked some online maps for other campgrounds and drove 10 miles east to the Wyeth campground, in hopes that they may have space for us to park for the night. As expected, the campground was completely booked, but after a couple of calls to their boss, the camp hosts told us that they were going to open an overflow field for us, and any other evacuees, who may need a place to sleep for the night. They had a direct line of communication with the park rangers and would let us know if the fire posed a threat of further evacuation.
As we set-up camp, we watched planes loaded with water fly overhead, and prayed that their efforts weren’t futile. The smoke was getting so bad, that even though the fire was 10 miles away, it had blotted out all blue in the sky around us. We were not certain what direction the fire was spreading to, or how fast a forest fire could potentially spread, and we began to wonder if 10 miles had been enough distance to qualify as “safe”. By this point, we were obsessively following news of the fire and had learned that roughly 150 people were trapped on the Eagle Creek trail, and were going to have to shelter in place for the night, as rescuers would lead them out via a taxing 14-mile detour in the morning. Our thoughts were with those who were stranded in the woods, cold and frightened, and on the natural scenery around us, which we had taken for granted that morning. If the fire continued to spread down the Gorge, we knew that area would never again look the way it had that morning for generations to come.
Having slept only in bits and pieces throughout the night, we woke early to put some more distance between the fire and ourselves. Upon waking, we saw that our camper was covered in ash, and the sky was completely filled with smoke.
The air was perfumed with the smell of campfires. A smell that I normally associated with leisurely evenings spent cooking s’mores was now being re-associated with the decimation of so much natural beauty. Ash fell around us in an eerie snowfall manner, as if we were stuck in a “Silent Hill” video game. In less than 24 hours, the entire landscape had transformed from a sunny summer day, with bright blue skies and cool breezes, to a sepia-toned horizon that snowed ash, and air that was becoming increasingly toxic to breathe. Poor air quality aside, I felt claustrophobic as the smoke hung in the sky and encased us in what felt like a doomsday snow globe.
Wanting to get on the road early, we left the campground and headed into downtown Cascade Locks to get gas. We stopped at the gas station in town, only to discover that they had shut down their pumps and the area was beginning to issue evacuation notices to the residents. As we were standing by the pump trying to route to the next nearest gas station, a reporter from The Oregonian struck up a conversation and we shared our story from the night before. As we were talking with her, flames broke out in the tree line ahead of us. Up until that point, all we had seen was smoke. We had taken a false comfort in believing that the flames were a safe distance away. Seeing flames, was our cue to take our leave and we headed west out of the Gorge, having just enough gas to get us to the next station in Troutdale.
Over the next few days, we followed the news in horror as the fire grew and merged with an older, existing fire, and learned that it had jumped the Columbia River into Washington state. The air quality in the entire Portland/ Vancouver area was smoked out, and health advisories were in effect. On Tuesday morning, we saw a news report, which featured cell phone footage of a teenager, who was suspected of starting the fire with a smoke bomb. The footage showed a young, shirtless, man, sitting on a curb outside of the Eagle Creek hatchery. Stunned, I got Cay’s attention and we starred in disbelief at the TV, mentally recalling having seen that same scene unfold in real life. Having context now for the scene certainly changed our perception of what we had thought was a benign traffic stop.
It is now Friday, September 8th as I finally sit down to write this, and the fires are raging on as life moves forward. It is comforting that as I write this, no lives have been lost and that the affected towns seem to still be intact, but is utterly heartbreaking that so much of Oregon’s natural scenery is being consumed in the blaze. Our hope is that the fires can be contained soon with as little further damage as possible so that the lives, homes, and landscape around us can be preserved. A reminder of how drastically a situation can change in an instant, and how I should not take anything for granted.