Eventually, we will return.
With some roads near the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge reopening — including Interstate 84 — visitors will return to the iconic area. They will come to see the scorched trees and the burned-out landscape, and to lament the loss of something that has been precious to generations of Washingtonians and Oregonians. But as thoughts begin to turn from the area’s destruction and toward its recovery, caution is required.
The Eagle Creek Fire, which officials say was started by a 15-year-old Vancouver boy playing with fireworks, changed nearly 50,000 acres of previously stunning landscape. Even when areas are free of fire danger, the threat of landslides and unstable trees creates concern. On Thursday, officials showed a pile of more than 4,000 trees — mostly Douglas fir and cottonwoods — that have been removed because they presented a danger to motorists or workers in the area.
That work will continue, and the pending rainy season will further destabilize the area. New maps have been published to highlight areas at the greatest risk of landslides (http://www.oregongeology.org/slido/), and many trails are expected to be closed until spring — after officials can assess damage and complete repair work. “It’s extremely important for people to be more aware than ever of landslide hazards in this area,” engineering geologist Bill Burns said. He added, “When an area like this has a wildfire, it actually increases the susceptibility.”
The destruction is particularly disconcerting for residents of towns throughout the Gorge, where the economy has been blistered by the blaze. With the fire starting the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and with Interstate 84 closed for nearly two weeks, towns that rely upon tourism have suffered a deep economic impact, particularly along the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Even outside of areas that were evacuated, the downturn has been notable as visitors stopped arriving.
Linnea Prowett, a third-generation resident of Cascade Locks, Ore., told The Oregonian that her Cascade Country Store & Deli lost about $16,000 in business and product. “I honestly don’t know if we’re going to be able to keep going. I mean, it’s sad but it’s the truth.”
And yet, the area will recover. Residents of Southwest Washington are well aware of nature’s ability to rejuvenate, having witnessed the destruction and rebirth of the region surrounding Mount St. Helens in the past 37 years. While the Eagle Creek Fire brings an extra sense of despair because it was human-caused rather than an act of nature, there is faith that the Gorge will rehabilitate itself.
That will take time, and officials should work to help in that rejuvenation. Because the Gorge and surrounding lands are scenic areas or designated wilderness, commercial logging and the replanting of trees is not allowed — a prohibition that should be reconsidered in this case. Officials say there are provisions for changing those rules, but such a move would be unusual.
The truth is that the Gorge will never be the same — but that is not necessarily a cause for despair. It will grow in new ways, with different plants thriving in the altered landscape and a new ecosystem developing. Wildlife will return to burned-out areas and the trees eventually will be as majestic as they once were.
Nature will work its wonder and return to the areas destroyed by the Eagle Creek Fire.
And so will we.