Today a place I love, that many love, is on fire. The Columbia River Gorge is a glorious and historic area in northern Oregon and southern Washington. Mossy gorges, dozens of waterfalls, swimming holes, backpacking trails, wildflowers, kiteboarding, nature..just so much nature. If you’re not already familiar with it, I’m so sorry, because 10,000 acres of it is on fire right now and that makes my heart hurt. To know that it was started by teenagers throwing fireworks in the dry end-of-summer forest makes me angry. Ashamed. I’m sure they didn’t mean to. But it happened. There are consequences to our carelessness and I’m scared, really actually scared sometimes that this idea hasn’t quite penetrated the fog of our digital existences. There is no back button, no fast forward. We cannot hit “edit” after the fact.
The fire is at 0% containment right now. I have friends who have volunteered to help fight it. Friends who are leaving their homes. Friends dozens of miles away who are breathing through face masks standing under a rain of ashes. And all I can think of is how incredibly unfair it is. That someone’s idea of fun, conducted at the wrong place at the wrong time, has scorched an entire ecosystem.
I’m writing this because I’m sad. And because I have a voice and I want that to mean something. You see the other half of this is that people on the trail saw them lighting the fireworks – and said nothing. God it’s so awkward to speak up. I know, I’m out there a lot and frequently choose to not say something. I feel like it should be so easy – flying drones where they aren’t allowed, illegal/unwarranted campfires, littering – can’t we just all agree these are laaame and we won’t partake? #leavenotrace, cool? Cool.
But it’s not that easy. More people are going outdoors than ever before. National park visitors are at an all time high. So, put simply, I guess I try to remember that a lot of us are new to this. And interested in it purely because of something we saw on social media, which isn’t always the best teacher. We owe it to each other to be more helpful. To educate each other and hold ourselves accountable. To speak up, gently and respectfully. To take a zoomed out perspective – if EVERY ONE who visited here did this, would it be a good thing? With the following I have I’m forced to think about this quite often. Initially I felt bound by it, now I’m grateful for it. Being forced to examine my own actions and how it will influence others has been an uncomfortable blessing. I’ve messed up, been called out. Learned from it. Do I really want to pack out all my toilet paper when I’m backpacking or pick up other people’s discarded plastic bottles/nasty trash? Honestly not really. Would I love a small campfire next to my cozy tent? Yup, but I’m not going to. Because when fire pits start popping up all over my favorite (used to be secret) camp spot, it sucks. When kids unintentionally light a forest on fire, it really sucks. Those scars stick around. So let’s be better. Please.
Sitting at home today thinking about the fire I found the bravery to call someone to have a talk about things going on in my own home island that don’t sit so well with me. About how we can collectively be more mindful. It’s a process, turning these scrolling thoughts into actual action.
We have lost many things to our carelessness. To our naivety. To this fire and our inability to speak up. My question is – what will you choose to gain from it?
In researching the causes and consequences of the ongoing Eagle Creek Fire I came across this short, yet poignant “Reflections on the Eagle Creek Fire” written by Laura O. Foster on Bike Portland’s website. It spoke more to me than any of the news articles. It is the kind of stirring and meaningful prose I aspire to.
Please feel free to read the original article here complete with photos and more information about the author.
The Columbia Gorge. Three Days Ago. Today.
1:00 a.m. today: The smell of burning forest punched through an already-uneasy sleep. I stepped outside, sniffing, looking through the dark for flames, afraid our land was on fire.
But it wasn’t this forest’s turn. This fire is ravaging the Columbia Gorge. A teenage boy, or two boys, throwing fireworks off a cliff, started this Eagle Creek Fire, named for a place so magnificent it was chosen for the first-in-the-nation Forest Service campground, 101 years ago.
A hike into its green canyon is a memory to marvel over, a sanctuary to introduce to ones we love. It’s part of us, our story, our pride as stewards of this Pacific Northwest we are lucky enough to live in. We take our guests there. See? Isn’t it magnificent?
Those boys. Their rationale and lack of foresight are hard for a middle-aged woman to fathom. But they could not have guessed this expanding conflagration, this destruction, fear, sadness, death, disruption, grief. Do they even know about the east wind?
I feel sorry for them, and for their parents.
That wind keeps bringing me bits of our beautiful gorge. Through my screens come tiny black shards that lived, three days ago, as old growth Douglas fir bark. On my porch floor is grey ash. Three days ago, it was a branch woven into a bald eagle’s nest, or the dried grass in a mouse’s burrow, or the insect-laden trunk of a snag. The pileated woodpecker who mined that tree is somewhere safe, I hope. The insects… they’re atomized, small victims of human stupidity.
A friend reported seeing red-tailed hawks yesterday, circling near the burning woods. My heart cracked a bit with that news. Those confident predators, confused now, not yet able to leave what they had to leave.
The land will recover. In a few hundred years it will be back to where it was, three days ago.
The Columbia Gorge is beloved by Portlanders for its beauty and recreation it offers us. But it’s home to small communities and bigger towns, to businesses, schools, churches and first responders. Those responders — the people who rescued 153 hikers caught by the fire—are today working to contain the fire. They are the ones who everyday are ready to fix the problems people bring: the falls, the fires, the accidents. Consider making a contribution, via Friends of the Columbia Gorge, to Hood River County Search and Rescue, one of the local emergency responders helping people impacted by the Eagle Creek fire. And after the fire, go have a meal in Cascade Locks and help the healing begin.
— Laura O. Foster
Your thoughts are beautiful.
But really, I’m just so sad. This fire is devastating. I was there at Eagle Creek just a few days before the fire broke out and it shocks me to think that it is no more. Nothing but a barren wasteland of ash and smoke. I drove down the Gorge Tuesday on my way home and as I drove by I actually had to pull over because I realized that tears were streaming down my face. I could see the entire mountainside up in flames, billowing smoke.
It’s sad, but those kids knew what they were doing. They just didn’t care. I’m hoping that this fire will at least make people think twice before going out and teach them to respect nature.
Thank you for sharing this Chelsea.
I was in this area for the first time last Thanksgiving. I am so grateful I got to see it before this fire happened.
It breaks my heart as well.
Linda – Thank you. Hope you are well.
Allie – I hear you.
I hope that’s what happens as well. When something this monumentally sad ensues from such a small single action it really reinforces how important caring/critical thinking are on an individual level. Those boys could have gotten lucky – more rain, less wind, earlier containment etc so many things they did not have control over that ultimately showed the full extent of "worse case scenario". But that’s what we must think of when we’re outdoors. Maybe people are too used to environments they can easily control. Anyway..just rambling. I can’t imagine knowing I was the spark that caused such devastation. It would crush me.
Thank you for your heartfelt thoughts.
PS: I have seen photos near Multnomah and it is still green in some (small) areas!