In Our View: Gorge Fire Burns the Soul

Damage is ongoing, but the sense of loss in the region is already overwhelming

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The devastation is far from finished, and yet the sense of loss already is overwhelming.

The Columbia River Gorge — our gorge, one of the signature landmarks of the Pacific Northwest — is ablaze. Beloved hiking trails, forests, meadows and scenic areas are engulfed in flames, leaving those who long have been inspired by the region to wonder what will remain once the damage is known.

The conflagration started Saturday — the result of teenagers playing with fireworks, according to officials — and by Wednesday, some 30,000 acres had burned. The scope of wildfires often is difficult to comprehend, but the 30,000-acre benchmark provides an easily understood context. That is about the size of the city of Vancouver. Imagine a fire large enough to scorch the earth from 192nd Avenue to Frenchman’s Bar Park, from Vancouver Mall to the Columbia River, and you can envision the breadth of the Eagle Creek Fire once it joined forces with a blaze already underway in the area.

The fact that the Eagle Creek Fire is the result of human carelessness is reprehensible. The fact that officials said a 15-year-old Vancouver boy — possibly with others — was the perpetrator is equally disappointing. And as residents throughout the region have expressed reactions that mix sadness with rage, many opinions have been shared about what will constitute appropriate punishment.

For now, it is far too early for the court of public opinion to hand out a sentence. Not all the facts are publicly known about the genesis of the fire; not all the details are clear about what charges might be brought. But the price should be high for careless actions that will require generations to rectify, and the lesson should be clear to all: Don’t do stupid stuff.

For the immediate future, the focus must be upon providing any possible assistance to firefighters and to relief efforts for people who have been displaced. That applies to both sides of the Columbia River, with the blaze having jumped to Washington on Tuesday.

Many people have asked about the use of specially equipped airliners to drop water or flame retardant on the blaze. But the U.S. Forest Service does not allow the use of a converted Boeing 747 known as the SuperTanker, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said that weather and wind conditions are not conducive to the use of conventional air tankers. Forest Service officials will not comment on their disapproval of the SuperTanker, but if and when the plane can be used safely, this is no time to limit firefighting capability out of budget concerns. The alternative is even more costly.

Meanwhile, residents throughout the region, including Clark County and Portland, are engulfed in a haze of smoke and ash that serves as a constant reminder of the man-made devastation taking place some 30 miles to the east. The smoke and ash, eventually, will clear, yet for now they generate nothing less than mourning for many people. The Columbia River Gorge is one of the area’s defining characteristics, and the fact that it is being irrevocably altered is a tragedy of enormous significance.

The Eagle Creek Fire has not been accompanied by the kind of human devastation seen recently in Texas with Hurricane Harvey. It does not pose the kind of threat that is nearing Florida with Hurricane Irma. It does not command round-the-clock news coverage on a national scale.

Yet, as local residents understand, a little piece of our community’s soul is in the process of burning up, and the sense of loss is overwhelming.