January 20 2019
COLUMBIA GORGE - Nearly 2000 fires and over 1,000 square miles were burned this year. In addition, $340 million was spent so far on firefighting costs.
The flames consumed iconic places all over Oregon, destroying mountain passes and forests Oregonians visit every year for pleasure and relaxation, including the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters.
The damage is now just being categorized and accessed, making a plan what comes next. In the coming weeks, state officials will survey the burned areas and determine when it's safe enough for them to be reopened.
The first major wildfire of the season ignited in the heart of one of Oregon's most beloved hiking and backpacking areas.
The Whitewater Fire started when a lightning-stuck tree ignited a fire above Whitewater Creek on Sentinel Hills.
The fire grew to 11,500 acres, but what will the long-term damage be?
The good news is that Jefferson Park, a beloved alpine meadow of lakes and meadow, appears mostly unscathed. There have been small spot fires, but no widespread burning in the trees and meadows.
"The fire came right to the edge of Jefferson Park and then kind of got stuck on the ridge," said Marcus Kaufmann, public information officer on the fire, earlier this summer.
The same could not be said for Whitewater Trail, the quickest and most popular pathway into Jeff Park. The forest there, much of it old-growth, will likely be burned, blackened and home to many dead snags, district ranger Grady McMahan said.
That will likely make the hike to Jefferson Park a different experience.
Other highly impacted areas include segments of the Pacific Crest Trail and Woodpecker Trail. The fire also burned the forest surrounding Triangulation Peak, a popular hiking destination known for views of Oregon's second-tallest mountain.
Work by firefighters stopped the blaze from spreading to the popular Pamelia Lake recreation area or farther south to Marion Lake.
The wilderness trails, which have been closed since the fire ignited, are likely to remain closed until spring to allow winter storms to bring down dead snags that could be a danger.
The long-term damage is difficult to predict in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire.
In the short term, more than 100 trails, campsites and parks were closed in the Columbia River Gorge. Many won't reopen until spring of 2018.
It's the long-term damage, what happens in the next six months, that has land managers most worried.
Steep, fire-ravaged slopes combined with winter rains is almost certain to bring a mess of landslides, erosion, falling trees and general destruction to popular trails.
In other words, while blackened forest will likely lead Portland's television news during coming weeks, it's really the weather that will shape the future of recreation in the Gorge.