Evacuation warnings downgraded for some in Skamania County

The fire burning on the Washington side of the Gorge is now 75 acres, fire officials said

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter and Mark Bowder, Columbian Metro Team Editor

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Evacuation warnings have been downgraded for some parts of western Skamania County this morning as a forest fire burning on Archer Mountain moves north and east away from residences in the rural area several miles west of Skamania.

A Level 3 (go now) evacuation order has been lifted on Smith Cripe Road and a series of private roads that feed into the county roadway, according to a statement from the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office. That area is now under a Level 2 (be ready to go) evacuation notice.

Level 3 evacuation orders remain in place for those living on Franz Road and Archer Mountain Road. 

Evacuation orders for those living on Mabee Mines Road and on private roads connecting to it have been downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1 (be aware/get ready).

About 40 houses remained threatened by the fire.

The changes in warnings come as fire officials say the Archer Mountain Fire has grown from 25 acres to 75 acres, according to the DNR fire officials in Skamania County. Fire managers at the Eagle Creek Fire had estimated the size of the fire at 112 acres after an overflight of the area using infrared cameras, but DNR was basing its estimate on direct observations on the ground.

The fire started at about 2 a.m. Tuesday after the Eagle Creek Fire apparently jumped the Columbia River and started burning on the south flank of Archer Mountain. The fire is burning in mature timber and forest brush in rocky, steep terrain, which is hindering efforts to bring it under control. As of this morning, the fire was completely uncontained.

DNR Incident Commander Jim Shank said crews are keeping an eye out for additional spot fires. He said he’s surprised there weren’t more.

Fire managers are also keeping an eye on the weather this afternoon, with forecasts of possible thunderstorms.

Firefighters are battling smoke, falling ash and steep slopes, which is making it difficult to establish a line around the fire. Crews are working with bulldozers to construct fire lines to the west and east of the fire in the hopes of keeping the fire within its current footprint, while others will focus on a direct attack if possible to prevent the fire from moving south and east toward homes and state Highway 14. Weather conditions need to improve before air tankers can be used in the fight, the DNR said.

Temperatures today are expected to be cooler and less humid, a combination that will hopefully help fire suppression efforts. However, the winds are expected to shift, which could cause some problems.

“When you have the changes in the Gorge, it all swirls around … it means the fire has a whole new bed of fuel to feed itself,” said Tom Berglund, spokesman for the fire suppression efforts. “It might be pretty dramatic for a while.”

A public information gathering for the Archer Mountain Fire will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Skamania Elementary School, 122 Butler Loop Road, Skamania.

In Oregon, the Eagle Creek and Indian Creek fires have merged together, burning 30,929 acres in the Columbia River Gorge, according to infrared overflights by fire managers.

More than 600 firefighters are working to put lines around the fire and continue to protect the infrastructure in the area. The Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1925, was saved by firefighters. Protecting private property, historical structures and other areas in state parks is the top priority for firefighters today, officials said.

In Washington, about 65 firefighters are battling the blaze. While there are no structures currently threatened by the fire, local fire departments are conducting structure protection procedures as a precaution.

Interstate 84 remains closed from Troutdale to Hood River due to rocks and other debris on the roadway.

The Coast Guard said a no-boat safety zone in the Columbia River, from east of Portland to 20 miles up river, would remain in effect Wednesday.

“Responders need the operational space to allow their pilots flexibility to maneuver, choosing the best spot to land and fly while accounting for shifting winds and narrow areas in the gorge,” said Capt. Tom Griffitts, the commanding officer, for Marine Safety Unit Portland, in a news release. “The incident command for the fire response requested restricting the waterway from Columbia River from Reed Island to the Bonneville Dam. The Captain of the Port supported the request.”

Damon Simmons, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal, said that the fire is zero percent contained. However, he had a message for those who are mourning the damage done to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

“The Gorge still looks like the Gorge. It’s not a wasteland,” he said. “It’s still a beautiful drive.”

Oregon State Police said a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver is suspected of starting the Eagle Creek Fire. They have made no arrests and are not releasing the boy’s name.

Investigators say that the boy, his family and friends have been cooperating with the ongoing investigation. State police is asking witnesses who were on the trail Saturday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to call them at 503-375-3555.

No new evacuations have been ordered today, though there were numerous evacuations issued in association with the fire on Tuesday.

The fires have caused air quality to remain at unhealthy levels, causing health officials to warn area residents to limit exposure to outdoor air.

The American Red Cross has shelters set up for those who have been evacuated from their homes.