In Our View: A Long View on Gorge Fire

Milestone reflects nature’s resilience; let due process drive justice, penalties

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Although the Multnomah Falls Lodge has reopened to welcome visitors from the Northwest and beyond, the impact of the Eagle Creek Fire that torched the surrounding area will linger for generations. Foremost among the continuing issues will be the regenerative power of nature and the notion of justice for the Vancouver teen accused of sparking the blaze.

For now, however, the reopening of the historic 1925 lodge marks a milestone. Last week, officials welcomed visitors to have a bite to eat in the restaurant, peruse the gift shop, and view the 620-foot-tall falls from a distance. The famed Benson Bridge and the trail to the top of the falls remain closed as work continues to ensure that hillsides, trees, and rocks in the area are secure.

For generations, Multnomah Falls has been among Oregon’s most popular visitor destinations, serving as an easily accessible and symbolic centerpiece of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. That area was torched in September by a blaze believed to be started by a teenager throwing fireworks into wooded areas. The fire eventually burned more than 48,000 acres, devastated the local economy during tourist season, and rained ash upon the Vancouver-Portland area more than 30 miles away.

As much as the physical damage, the fire was a blow to the psyche of residents, destroying a much-loved landscape that is part of the region’s zeitgeist. To lend some context, the blaze burned an area about 50 percent larger than the city of Vancouver.

In the process, the Eagle Creek Fire created a laboratory for examining how nature can rebuild itself and how humans can help. As Chris Havel, associate director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Division, told Portland Monthly magazine: “The Gorge that we know and love today has been through a lot of changes — it has seen fires, floods, and harsh winters before. And the Gorge bounces back. And people recover with it. If there is a silver lining to this fire, it is that it’s a reminder that we’re not just here to use the landscape but help take care of it.”

Longtime residents have seen this before, witnessing the remarkable regeneration that has taken place in the Mount St. Helens blast zone over the past 37 years. The Gorge will undergo a similar transformation, growing into something new and different while recreating the stunning beauty that long has drawn people to the area.

The Eagle Creek Fire is different, of course, in that the damage was caused by humans. That requires an examination of our notion of justice and punishment. After a lengthy investigation, a 15-year-old Vancouver boy is facing charges in Hood River Juvenile Court that include reckless burning, criminal mischief, and reckless endangerment.

Thus far, authorities have declined to release the name of the suspect or even the name of his lawyer. The Oregonian reported last month that the boy’s mother told a reporter, “This is a trauma for him. It was his mistake.”

Clearly, stiff penalties are required for actions that resulted in a firefighting bill of some $20 million and restoration costs that will mount for years. But for now, it is important to allow due process to take place without the threat of vigilante justice. We trust that appropriate punishment eventually will result.

That will take some time, and recovery of the Gorge will take generations. In the meantime, the reopening of Multnomah Falls Lodge is one small step toward the future.