A quarter of a million people visit Multnomah Falls every month from all over the world to behold the very thing locals hold precious and as a distinctive memory of many family events and outings with friends. Multnomah Falls, or as I’ll lovingly refer to it – M.F., is a 620 ft waterfall spanning two different levels with the upper fall being an astounding 542 ft and the lower being “just” 70 foot tall. It’s Oregon’s biggest attraction and is the second largest waterfall in America, but more importantly it’s a place millions of people grew up around and made very much a part of their home. Two teenage kids selfishly tossed fireworks down into part of the Columbia Gorge on a hiking trail, albeit the fire was an accident, the circumstances and results are still the same: 49,000 acres burned, several communities evacuated, hundreds of people despondent, countless animals suffered, a few structures burned, lots of scorched land but fortunately not one person has died.
On September 2, around 4pm, two kids did something that would unknowingly change their lives forever and impact many, many others. About one-mile south of Cascade Locks, Oregon a wildfire spread 70 square-miles in a matter of 2 1/2 weeks and the majority of that came on one fateful night when the conditions were just right and spread the fire about 13 miles through dry forest. Imagine that. A fire the size of Seattle is still burning just a couple of miles east of Portland. Many of the Level 3 evacuation orders in areas effected by the Eagle Creek fire were lowed on Friday, September 15, to Level 2 meaning the difference of being told you have to leave and being told it’s safe to return if you need but to remain prepared.
Credit: Doug Gross, Oregon Department of Transportation
Tuesday was the first full day of rain that Oregon has had since the fire started at the beginning of the month and that’s great news. Prior to the rain starting the fire was at a 30% containment level, according to a few media outlets, and according to one fire fighter in particular he thinks that is great news as the upcoming rain will dramatically help squash it much sooner than some had feared. Others, while worrying for the Columbia Gorge, have taken to Facebook and many news articles comment sections, to demand action against the underage teenagers who set it ablaze. A very divisive issue. On one side you can see how many people are worked up over potentially losing their homes or losing their backyard playground known as the Columbia River Gorge and Mt Hood National Forest. On the other side, however, it was an accident, they certainly didn’t mean to do it, and they shouldn’t have their lives ruined over an accident where no person died. I’m not taking a stance, I’m just presenting both sides. I would hate to see any retaliation, outside of the court system, against these kids and their families.
Although, what many people don’t know or forgot, is that more than 100 people got stranded overnight due to the fire on the trail they were on. At the time of the start of the fire there was another one that was already burning at Indian Creek where they were actively battling it to keep it condensed to that area, and one federal employee was posted several miles up on the Eagle Creek trail to enforce the partial trail closure. After news broke out of the fire, the person standing guard evacuated a small group of hikers by walking southeast with them to the end of Eagle Creek trail, at Wahtum Lake. The bigger group of stranded hikers would exit by the same route but not until the next day. The helpless hikers spent several hours without any radio or cell phone contact with anyone until a Forest Service ranger arrived.
Among the deserted hikers were Rob Dones, an Air Force Reserve medic. Dones was there with a couple friends including a woman he met since moving to Portland, “I asked her to just show us a local spot to go for a hike, so she took us to the Gorge,” said Dones. “It was kind of like my first date with her.” Also in the large group were some teenagers from Salem, Oregon that went for the day hike to celebrate a birthday. Theo Lassen, one of the nine teenagers from Salem, said “You could see the red sky and smoke on the hill, and this weird yellow light from the fire that would get brighter and brighter and then get small and dark. Sometimes it would light up so bright you could see everything around you, and then it would get dark again. It was scary watching that. I didn’t sleep at all.” They spent the night on the cold ground with little-to-no provisions, no sleeping bags, no comfort from their worried parents. They shivered through the night as one of the year’s most destructive fires raged just down the trail. While some had the most terrifying night of there life to date, others like Abby Bork, had a different experience. “There were times when I thought we were going to die, but it actually turned out being a lot of fun.” said Abby, the youngest of the group at only 15 years old.
Credit: Luis Mota, Hillsboro Fire Department
Included in those displaced by this fire, meaning having to be forced to leave, was a group of nuns having to flee their historic covenant. “It was smoky and the ashes were falling so that was disconcerting,” said Sister Jacinta Coscia, “the whole thing has been kind of surreal.” The sisters were staying with family and at hotels but hoped to be back in Bridal Veil as soon as it was safe to return. “It’s not just the house,” said Coscia. “It’s all of us being together.” The sisters watched as the Eagle Creek Fire threatened their beloved, historic convent, built in 1916. All of the sisters prayed, waited and wondered. Until it was time to go. “At 10 o’clock, the knock came at the door that we should evacuate,” recalled Sister Therese Gutting, ““I removed the blessed sacrament, the Eucharist and we all left in our cars heading to Portland.” The sisters packed small things, such as check books, passports and sacred items.
I spoke with a local Hillsboro, Oregon firefighter, Luis Mota, who was one of the fire fighters in the now viral image taken at Multnomah Falls, about his thoughts on what has happened and his experience saving the Multnomah Falls Lodge. “I had just gotten home when I got a call saying there’s a need in the Gorge, but they need to know if I can go right away,” Mota said, “I got the call at 10 and we were in the Gorge at midnight. I honestly believe if we weren’t there it would’ve burned down.” The Multnomah Falls Lodge was completed in 1925. Noted Portland architect Albert E. Doyle designed the historic lodge. It cost $40,000 to construct the Cascadian style stone and timber building and it now houses The Multnomah Falls Lodge Restaurant, Gift Shop, Snack Bar, Espresso Bar and Interpretive Center. Mota, a fireman for close to a decade, continues by saying “It was so wind driven that the embers would get thrown 2 miles, 3 miles ahead of itself. Thats how it started on the other side of the river. The winds were so strong that the embers would get carried and that would grow. That’s how it spread so fast.”
The falls are Oregon’s number one natural tourist attraction. As soon as people land at the Portland airport, or drive in from out of state, more than likely they will be heading toward the road that houses several waterfalls and trails so it would directly affect Oregon’s tourism money if the Lodge area, and Gorge itself, burned down. I’m not at all saying it’s the reason they should save it, I’m simply saying it would’ve had some drastic problems had it not been quarantined and shut down as soon as it was. Unfortunately not everything was saved, as the famouly photographed and visited Oneonta tunnel caught fire and burned up. In 2009 it cost $2.6 million to restore the historic highway’s tunnel. The Eagle Creek fire roared through the tunnel, burning massive timbers inside and out. There’s no plan at this time for its reopening, ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said, partly because there’s no money set aside for the project.
Credit: Lyn Topinka
“When we found out is was the lodge right off the bat I thought ‘oh man I love the lodge. I don’t want to see this burned down’ and I think it became really personal; the memories. To have it burn down would be devastating to all Oregonians and anyone who has visited the falls. The falls will always be there but the lodge is the icon. It was pretty cool right off the bat when we were setting things up, once in your career. This is not going to happen to me again.” In our respective careers we always prepare for the worst but hope for the best, we always want to be the hero in our own life story but not often do we get the chance. Luis Mota got the chance to be a hero even if he didn’t ask for it or want it, at least not in that way.
In total there were about 25 fire fighters stationed at the lodge, from command structure down to the fire fighter level, between all of them made up a task force, vs a strike team. “You get a strike team on brush rigs and they say ‘hey you’re going to this fire, wait til you get there and you get an assignment,” Mota continues to explain, “As a task force, we knew exactly what we were going to do. I was on a water tender. Once we got there the plan was already in motion, and they just asked us if we could do this plan and we didn’t want to go there and say no we have a better idea. So the Portland crew set up the big ladder truck, the one they keep showing on the news, and to have that on a wildfire, you never see that. It never happens. When I saw the tiller truck, a tiller truck is an vehicle driven in the back, and to even see it at the lodge was like, whoa, this is going to get serious. Their idea was to shoot water over the lodge because it’s mostly the embers. To have the fire to come down to the lodge is one thing and you can mitigate that by fighting the fire that way, but it’s the embers you got to keep a check on since it’s in this little cave, so as the fire is burning down it’s shooting a bunch of little embers. That’s what you have to worry about. That was definitely a good plan and whoever thought of that plan was a genius. I think it was the Portland crew, but I can’t tell you exactly who it was.”
The fire isn’t fully eliminated yet, but there is still reason to celebrate: the evacuations have been lifted and people have been slowly reclaiming their normalcy as they go back to their homes and their lives. In total there were over 1,000 firefighters from around the Pacific Northwest, and the country, that came to help support the efforts of battling the fires. All lanes between Troutdale and Cascade Locks are still close on Interstate 84 for safety concerns, so the alternative route is still the 2 lane road Highway 14 in Washington that parallels I-84 across the Columbia River.
Since I had first finished this article there have been some developing information such as recent warm weather creating more smoke in the gorge during the passed week but the last 48 hours has seen rain and a cold front that has helped reduce the fire activity. In total the effected area covers 48,831 acres and is almost 50% contained. Officials say the fire may not be fully contained until November because of the steep landscapes, and have given no estimation on when trails or roads will open back up.
If you or someone you know has been effected by this fire I would love to hear your story! Please e-mail me via the contact form on the front page, or leave your story public in the comment section below!
*I apologize for the delay of this article, there was a technical issue. It has been resolved. Thank you!*