“The smoke was so dense, it blocked out the sun.”

Fire in the Gorge!

This year has been an especially awful wildfire year in Oregon. In Portland, we have been hearing about the Chetco Bar fire in faraway Brookings, 350 miles from Portland in the farthest southeast corner of our state. It has been burning since July 12 (at this writing 55 days). It has consumed more than 167,000 acres and is still only 5% contained. It is the largest of many wild-fires across the state.

However, Oregonians, especially Portlanders, have been devastated this week by the start and rapid growth of a fire within the Columbia Gorge. It was started September 2 by a teen-ager throwing fireworks along a popular hiking trail called Eagle Creek Trail. While it has consumed more than 10,000 acres in only a few days, it is small compared to the ChetCo fire. However, it’s location close to Portland and within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area makes this a personal and painful disaster. At a news conference, Multnomah County Chairwoman, Deborah Kafoury, declared, “The Gorge is Oregon’s crown jewel.”

Eagle Creek Fire
Photo of the Eagle Creek Fire taken from the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam area on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017. (Photo by Tristan Fortsch)

The Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was designated in 1986 by then President Ronald Reagan. It is an 80mile long gorge positioned along the Columbia River. At its steepest parts, it is 4000 feet deep. Anyone who flies into the Portland International Airport to visit usually gets a quick trip to the Gorge to see the famous Multnomah Falls, as well as many other gorgeous hiking trails and falls. It has been dry in the Portland area with only one day of measurable rain (0.06 inches) for the summer. Fireworks set-off by a teen easily set the forest ablaze. Of major concern is that Portland’s primary water source, Bull Run Reservoir, is located near the fire. Additionally, the Bonneville Power Grid that supplies electricity to much of Oregon and Washington, relies on a Columbia River dam within the Gorge and is near the fire line. So Oregonians mourn and plan and worry as ash falls and air quality declines.

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls, September 14, 2016 (Photo: Tara Baker)

Historical Multnomah Falls Fire 1991

This is not the first fire within the Gorge in recent memory. Another smaller fire broke-out in 1991 at Multnomah Falls, again caused by people. A positive lesson we can keep in mind from that time is that the forest rebounded quickly. 26 years later, tall Douglas firs and thick undergrowth lie along the falls and stream. However, it will be difficult to see the devastation left behind once this fire is contained and we are allowed to return.

The Tillamook Burn

Oregonians have seen a lot of wildfires and watched the forests return. One of our most famous victories over a complete forest burn was the reforestation of the Tillamook State Forest. I am hoping that lessons can be learned and applied again once reforestation efforts begin in the Columbia Gorge.

My husband and I visited the Tillamook Forest last October and saw it as the leaves began to fall. We did not grow-up in the area and learned about the Tillamook Burn for the first time at the Tillamook Forest Center. A series of three large forest fires annihilated more than 350,000 acres of old growth forest (some trees older than 400 years old) beginning in 1933 and continuing to 1945. The first fire was so large that Roger Ellingson told The Oregonian his relatives remembered, “The smoke was so dense, it blocked out the sun.” However, it was not until the last fire when a public outcry began into how to reforest the barren landscape. This fire in 1945 burned many trees that were along major highways Portlanders used to travel to the Oregon coast, so the public had to view the loss personally. The area was described as containing many “gray ghost” tree stumps and blackened earth. It was a barren waste.

Tillamook Burn 1933
Tillamook Burn, ravine and burned timber, 77.176.AE Tillamook burn. Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, 77.176.AE

A plan for reforestation

The Oregon government responded to the public’s call by crafting a state wide bond that would pay for the reforestation of the area. Many thought the idea to reclaim the forest was impossible, including the Forest Service that at first declined to participate in the program. Some people wanted to let the forests go, to be claimed by grasses to be used as rangeland. However, the Oregon people stood up and passed the controversial bill in 1948.

What followed seems improbable to me today. Much of the denuded land had fallen to three state counties as people and forestry companies defaulted on taxes. After the bond passed, these counties turned the properties over to the state government. Many individuals, private landowners, and the state and federal government then worked together over the next 25 years to reforest the Tillamook Burn. 72 million two-year old Douglas fir seedlings were planted by the hands of children on school field trips, Boy Scout troops, prison in-mates, community volunteers, and forest service personnel. New access roads and look-out towers were built. Many forestry and wildlife techniques were used by trial and error, as nothing like this had been attempted before. In 1973, the Oregon Governor Tom McCall declared the area an official state forest, describing the reforested woodland a “sea of green.” (Gail Williams, Oregon State University thesis, 1985)

boy scouts replanting the burn

Run the burn marathon
A trail through the current “sea of green” Tillamook State Forest (from Burn Trail Run)

Applying lessons from Tillamook Forest Success

So as we mourn for the Gorge we knew, we can also take heart that rapid regrowth is possible. As many of us will see and pass-by the obvious blackened trees and scorched earth, I would love to see Oregonians again stand-up and organize a reclamation program for the Columbia Gorge. There will be many obstacles. Foremost, the forests there are under the jurisdiction of the national USDA Forest Service. However, with enough pressure from Oregonians and a directed campaign by our state government, we may again see students, citizen volunteers, conservation groups, and government agencies working side by side to re-wild our beautiful Gorge. And in 25 years, I will be able to walk the Eagle Creek Trail or wade through the Oneonta Gorge with my grand-children.

3 thoughts on ““The smoke was so dense, it blocked out the sun.”

  1. Oregonians will have to come together like we did for the Tillamook Burn and replant the lost trees! We need a leader to organize and inspire people to action. I want to help. I have so much history of hiking the Gorge it has to be restored!


  2. Very interesting read. The “sea of green” before and after pictures are amazing. That would great if something like this is feasible in the gorge!


  3. I don’t know enough of western forests to know what tree species live in that area, but I’d be very curious to know if any are fire-dependent species (such as Jack Pine in the northeastern US and Canada). One thing I have learned is that Nature always finds a way to restore balance. Our efforts usually speed-up that process of regeneration.


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