Fast wildfire hits more than homes
By GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press
TROUTDALE, Ore. (AP) — A fast-moving wildfire chewing through Oregon’s forestland is threatening more than homes and people. It’s also devouring the heart of the state’s nature-loving identity.
As flames erupted this week in the Columbia Gorge, horrified Oregon residents mourned the devastation of beloved day trails, swimming holes and dozens of crystalline waterfalls that are all an easy day trip from Portland.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area attracts more than 3 million tourists a year and holds North America’s largest concentration of waterfalls — including 77 named cascades. It is also home to 800 wildflower species, including 16 found nowhere else in the world.
The gorge’s winding trails are lush with ferns, hidden pocket waterfalls and stunning vistas of the mighty Columbia River. They are most cherished by Oregonians, who feel a deep connection to an area that’s often referred to as Oregon’s “crown jewel.”
As the flames spread through the gorge’s forests at an alarming rate, social media lit up with posts recalling favorite hikes, memories of gorge weddings and worries about what will remain when the smoke clears.
“Everybody has this visceral attachment to what they care about there and that all feels like it’s slipping through our fingers,” said Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “We literally are waiting until the smoke clears to go out and assess what’s there, what we’ve lost and then try to move on from there.”
On Wednesday, two fires merged to form a blaze of more than 50 square miles (130 square kilometers). The fire has closed a 30-mile (78-kilometer) stretch of nearby Interstate 84 and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes on the far eastern fringes of Portland’s metropolitan area. Authorities say the fire was started by a 15-year-old boy who tossed fireworks into the woods.
Scorching heat, bone-dry vegetation and winds of 30 to 40 mph pushed the flames 13 miles (34 kilometers) in 16 hours at one point — an almost unprecedented rate of fire spread, authorities said. Embers from the blaze also were carried by winds across the Columbia River and started a spot fire on the opposite bank in Washington state.
On the Oregon side, the flames had some of the gorge’s most treasured spots in its crosshairs.
After an all-night battle, fire crews saved the historic Multnomah Lodge, a historic 92-year-old information center, bar and restaurant at the base of Multnomah Falls.
That waterfall, visible and easily accessible from Interstate 84, alone attracts more than 2 million visitors a year from around the world. A low bridge allows easy viewing and a steep one-mile (1.6 kilometer) hike allows visitors to peer down 620 feet (190 meters) from just above its drop-off while taking in a panoramic view of the Columbia River and Washington state on the far bank.
Oneonta Falls, famous for a hi