The Environmental Impact Caused by the Eagle Creek Fire

By Kira Chan, Copy Editor

The Eagle Creek Fire continues to burn intensely in the Columbia River Gorge; while luckily no human lives were lost, the event took an immense toll on the environment, and the future of the Gorge is still uncertain. As of Sept. 22, the fire burned 48,600 acres and was 46 percent contained.

The fire began on Sept. 2 when fireworks were thrown into the Gorge. It started with a small bomb of smoke, but quickly grew. This left 153 hikers stranded, causing them to have to stay up in the Gorge overnight until they were able to safely evacuate the area. On Sept. 5, the fire jumped across the Gorge from Oregon to Archer Mountain on the Washington side, and on Sept. 6 the Eagle Creek Fire combined with the Indian Fire, an older fire that had been burning for weeks before. The immediate effects were not only substantial, but extremely fast. The fire traveled 13 miles in 16 hours, and flames reached as high as 30 feet. Oregon Governor Kate Brown deployed the National Guard to aid with the fire, alongside firefighters and search and rescue teams.

Efforts in fighting this fire did not go unannounced. KGW stated that on Mount Defiant, “helicopters and planes dumped thousands of gallons of water on the fire to protect the important cell towers and other equipment at the top at the top, and it worked.” The Multnomah Falls Lodge, an historic lodge built in 1925, was also able to be saved to the relief of many. It took five water tenders, four fire engines, a 500-gallon propane tank, and several brave firefighters, but the fire managed to only take out the lower bridge, leaving the lodge and upper bridge intact.

While this is a heartbreaking event for the beloved Gorge, fire is natural and necessary for the renewal of forests. As well as manmade, it can be caused by various natural occurrences, such as lightning strikes. It’s common to perform controlled burns in forest areas in order to burn out dry land. Then, a wildfire would be unable to grow too much.

A majority of the Eagle Creek Fire burned in what’s called a “mosaic” effect. Rather than a fire sweeping out a whole line of trees, the fire is scattered among only a few patches trees in each area. “This means that we didn’t lose every living organism in the fire region, but that the flames jumped around,” said AK Peterson, environmental science teacher at Cleveland.

From the start of the fire, people displayed concern for what the Gorge will look like after the fire burns out. Videos released by KGW showing aerial views of the Gorge revealed the current visible damage. In some areas, green was still prevalent, while others were extremely damaged, showcasing yellow trees and black burned areas. Many parts of the Gorge now have areas with splotches of yellow and green mixed, showing how the mosaic effect played a role.

Landslides are appearing to be a concern for geologists as well. The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries created maps that showed where 286 landslides could potentially occur. Due to the lack of green foliage, there aren’t as many roots to hold the soil together. With winter approaching, rainy weather poses danger to the steep hills.

While the fire caused vast physical damage in the Gorge, the air quality deteriorated significantly for the areas in and around it. According the the Environmental Protection Agency, the Healthy level, or the Green level, is an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 0 to 50. 51 to 100 is Moderate (Yellow), 51 to 100 is Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange), 151 to 200 is Unhealthy (Red), 201 to 300 is Very Unhealthy (Purple), and 301 to 500 is Hazardous (Maroon).

Initially, winds blew the air from the fire towards Portland, causing an AQI in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups and Unhealthy ranges for a few days. Western winds counteracted this, leaving Portland to breathe for a short period, until mid-September when the winds were pushed back. According to KGW, Portland had the worst air quality in the country on Sept. 16. While the fire itself was reportedly not spreading west, the air quality in Portland went back to unhealthy.

The air was thick with smoke, the sun was red, and bits of ash visibly fell as if it were snow. The Washington Post stated that it was “reminiscent of the eruptions of Mount St. Helens in 1980.”

“I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest my whole life, so I have always heard about the fire seasons and some of the devastating statistics,” said Peterson. “This, however, is the first time I can recall a fire so close to the city. It seems so much more frightening and realistic when the sky is brown with smoke and there is a coat of ash on our cars.”

Animal life was taken into consideration as well when assessing the air quality. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife made a decision to move over one million fish at the Cascade Hatchery in the Gorge to the Leaburg Hatchery. The threats of debris and mudslides in the area could “clog screens on the hatchery’s water intake and cut off water to the fish.” Next spring, the fish will be released into rivers.

The unhealthy air was a burden to school and school-related activities. On Sept. 5, Portland Public Schools issued a two hour early dismissal due to the air quality and excessive heat, as temperatures were rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sports were greatly affected by the change in air quality as they had to be canceled. The Oregon School Activities Association released a letter to the superintendents, principals, and athletic directors, stating that “Contests and/or practices shall be canceled or moved indoors in areas that have an AQI or 24‐hour average PM2.5 in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups range (orange level).”

Orange level meant that practices and games for cross country, soccer, and football, were not able to continue. This decision was made after discussion with the Oregon Health Authority and OSAA medical advisors. Although it put an abrupt stop to sports, the decision was met with approval from the community.

“I would say if we received any criticism at all it was because we didn’t cancel sooner,” said Cleveland Athletic Director Nathan Stanley. “We could’ve moved forward and, knowing what I know, at the end I think every decision that was made along the way was the right decision, both to kind of hold off for a while, and then ultimately to end up cancelling. I think those were good decisions made with the best information that we had at the time.”

While the Eagle Creek Fire was an enormous and tragic occurrence, it is not the first time a wildfire like this has happened, especially in the 2017 fire season; 2017 was a record breaking year for wildfires. Approximately 3.4 million acres and counting have been burned this year alone, and in Oregon and Washington there are currently approximately 24 wildfires. In the past, “Fire Season” used to be 30 days, which turned into 90 days, and by now it’s year-round. Climate change is a strong contender to contributing to the extreme increase in wildfires. Rising temperatures are causing dry soils, especially when wet areas become wetter, and dry areas become drier, which is a result of precipitation levels changing. The dry soil and increasing drought cause a likelihood for a prolonged wildfire season.

“I think the Earth is sending us signs all of the time,” said Peterson. “Sometimes these signs are magnificent displays of nature, and sometimes they are signs that are devastating and leave us feeling depressed about our impact on the planet. I think this particular fire season, and the recent hurricanes as well, should not be dismissed. We need to continue to study these events and learn how to interpret what Mother Nature is telling us. It is my opinion that there is overwhelming evidence that our global ecosystem is out of whack. Now it’s time for the bravest and most intelligent environmentalists to help reduce the human imprint and give nature the space to renew itself.”

Some of the drastic changes to everyday life caused by the Eagle Creek Fire have begun to recede. On Sept. 24, Interstate 84 Eastbound, a freeway along the northern border of Oregon, reopened, and the air quality in Portland has gone down to the Moderate level. As we continue to watch the disastrous fire burn out, we can only hope for the best for the environment and people of Oregon and Washington.