PORTLAND, Oregon - A huge wildfire outside Portland has forced hundreds of residents to evacuate as it ravaged the beautiful Columbia River Gorge and sent sparks falling on communities miles away.
The Eagle Creek Fire has burned nearly 31,000 acres since it broke out on Saturday. The fire has burned through timber in the gorge, destroying landmarks in one of the Pacific Northwest's most beautiful natural areas.
"Our hearts are breaking," Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at a news conference. "The Gorge is Oregon's crown jewel."
The blaze was one of 81 large fires burning in the United States on Tuesday, with more than 28 burning in Montana and nearly 20 in Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fires over the last several days have created extreamlly poor air conditions.
Winds sent ash from those fires falling on Portland about 30 miles (48 km) to the west of the fire on Tuesday.
Lieutenant Damon Simmons, a spokesman for the Oregon state Fire Marshal's Office, told reporters that in his 18 years experience in the area he had never seen a wildfire propel ash as intensely as the Eagle Creek Fire.
Authorities ordered 400 residents in Multnomah County, to evacuate. Interstate 84 remained closed from Troutdale to Hood River due to rocks, snags and other debris the roadway Wednesday.
Winds have shifted to the west Wednesday, bringing cooler and moister air to the fire area.
"The wind shift could push the fire to the east, especially in the higher elevations in the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness," InciWeb says. "A Fire Weather Watch is in effect this afternoon for potential lightning."
Oregon State Police officials said they continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire's cause. Officials said they had identified a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver who was suspected of starting the fire through the 'misuse of fireworks'.
Portland resident Liz FitzGerald said she witnessed a teenage boy throwing firecrackers that are believed to have sparked the wildfire now tearing through more than 10,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge. She called police then gave a detailed recounting of the events of Sept. 2.
"It was 100 degrees in town and I wanted to be in some water. Some friends of mine had gone up to Punch Bowl [Falls] about a month earlier and I'd seen video of them jumping in the waterfall and it looked awesome to me.
The Eagle Creek Trail is one of the Gorge's most popular hikes, located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River near the town of Cascade Locks. Beyond Punchbowl Falls, the trail is a well-worn backpacking route to Tunnel Falls and eventually Wahntum Lake, deep in Mount Hood National Forest. It wasn't unusual to have so many visitors at Punchbowl Falls last Saturday around 4:30 p.m when one hiker watched a group of teenagers allegedly tossing fireworks over a nearby cliff. Soon after, the forest began to burn. (Oregon State Police said that the 15-year-old suspect had been found and was cooperating with the investigation.)