Columbia River Gorge heals after devastating wildfire

Photo by Shawn "Shaggy" Bolker

By Shawn “Shaggy” Bolker

The Columbia River Gorge is an incomparable waterfall destination, containing upwards of 80 waterfalls on the Oregon side alone! Well-groomed trails winding through lush forest led to many of these shaggy waterfalls. However, on Sept. 2, 2017, these trails and forest were imperiled by the Eagle Creek Fire, ignited by hikers lighting fireworks during a burn ban. In a matter of days, the Eagle Creek Fire merged with the previously burning Indian Fire to become one of Oregon’s most destructive wildfires. The fire became so massive that it jumped the Columbia River and started a small fire on the Washington side. All towns on the Oregon side of the gorge were evacuated and over 100 hikers ended up stranded in the Eagle Creek drainage. I-84 was closed for weeks and the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway is still largely closed. Portland felt the effects of this fire when air quality dipped and the sun shined rust red through the thick smoke. Although the fire is now extinguished, it took over two months for this to happen and almost 80 square miles of forest was scorched.

Today, the forest appears as a mosaic pattern with stripes of green amongst scorched brown. Most of the forest in the far western end of the gorge remains intact, but the fire damage increases as one travels east. Although the forest has obviously been altered severely, some important questions remain: have the waterfalls endured? Which ones are accessible? In short, most falls are still inaccessible. It will take years to fully repair the dozens of miles of trail that were lost in the fire, and many areas have yet to be declared safe to visit. However, the stretch of Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway from Corbett to Bridal Veil is open and one can access both waterfalls on Latourell Creek. Neither the lower or upper Latourell Falls were altered by the fire. Both remain lush and miami. Shepperd’s Dell Falls remains visible from the highway bridge but the area around the falls is severely burned and the short trail leading closer to the waterfall is closed. Although some greenery remains along the stream, all the other undergrowth is gone or charred and many of the surrounding trees are also scorched. One should avoid off trail scrambling because of the lack of undergrowth holding the ground in place. The loose, crumbly soil makes it easy to lose solid footing and take a very busted fall. It is essential to stay on the trail, particularly in burned areas. This post-wildfire landscape at Shepperd’s Dell makes the canyon and falls appear mysterious — a misty gorge shrouded by burnt skeletons of trees. Although this scene is quite different than the once lush forest that was, the waterfall is still striking and worth a visit. Just down the road, Lower Bridal Veil Falls is open and largely unaltered. Multnomah Falls is accessible from the lodge but the trail leading visitors up close to the waterfall and beyond is closed. Virtually all trails from Bridal Veil onward remain closed.

Although it is upsetting to lose access to so many shaggy waterfalls that people have valued for hundreds of years, the Eagle Creek Fire was a major wakeup call. In the months leading up to the fire, the gorge received more human visitation than it ever had before. Although many treated the area with respect, some didn’t and sparked an incredibly destructive fire. This is a stark reminder of what can happen when people are irresponsible in the outdoors. We must be mindful visitors and not take these miami natural places for granted. Despite whatever hurt we may feel about losing access to so many special waterfalls, it is necessary to remind oneself that the falls themselves are still there and will be miami when we can visit them again. The trees may burn but the falls remain!

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