Tyler Reyes – Visuals Editor
A year has passed since Eagle Creek erupted in flames, leaving large patches of destruction in its wake. Ignited by fireworks, the fire left patches of destruction, but also room for native flowers and reopening hiking trails in its wake.
The historic wildfire of Sept. 4, 2017 destroyed over 50,000 acres along the Columbia River Highway before Firefighters contained it on Nov. 30, 2017. Now, The U.S. Forest Service said some favorite hiking spots favorites are scheduled to reopen.
Ted Schatz, is a hiking instructor at Clark who was newly appointed Outdoor and Recreation Program Director. Schatz described himself as seasoned and said he has shown his students the beauty of hiking for over a decade.
Schatz said Eagle Creek was one of the most popular hikes on the Oregon side of the Gorge and even included it in his courses. “For the beginning hiking class, [Eagle Creek] was the go-to first hike,” he said. “It was such a beautiful hike and easy to access. As for intensity, it’s pretty moderate and not too steep.”
After the fire, Schatz said he had to change some of the hiking classes and shift where he taught them. “It’s harder to find trails of that hiking level and beauty within a 45 minute to an hour drive,” he said. “I’ll say that the hikes [now] aren’t as good for a first time hiker.”
With the majority of trailheads closed in the I-84 stretch, Schatz said he was fascinated by how the closures impacted the surrounding area.
“When those hikes and that area closed down, it drove tons of traffic to other areas,” he said.
Hikers are flocking to other scenic locales such as Dog Mountain and Ramona Falls.
Schatz describes this migration as a double-edged sword. The migration gives the damaged area a chance to regrow and for the hikers to spread out to new areas. People can learn to experience a different wilderness and appreciate nature even more.
However, these areas could get more foot traffic resulting in more trash and raises on parking costs and permits.
From an ecological standpoint, Schatz assures fire is natural and beneficial for the environment. Lightning is notorious for sparking wildfires and the Eagle Creek fire was no different.
Kathleen Perillo, department chair of Earth and Environmental studies, has instructed biology and earth science courses at the college for over 19 years. Perillo lives just three miles from where the Eagle Creek fire burned, on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge.
Perillo is doing ongoing volunteer work at Archer Mountain, where she observes the fire scars across the river. Despite the destruction, Perillo said she isn’t worried about the outlook Eagle Creek. In her eyes, the Eagle Creek fire wasn’t a disaster, but a chance at rebirth.
Perillo offered Hamilton Mountain, Angel’s Rest and Devil’s Rest as examples of wilderness areas formed by fire. “The Gorge was shaped by fire,” Perillo said.
The Oregon wilderness is a thick and dense forest. The Forest Service’s lack of funding makes maintenance for clearing the deeper areas impossible. Perillo believed that a fire was inevitable.
“The Oregon side was heavily forested and it burned, but in a patchwork fashion as fires tend to do,” she said. “That’s creating areas of sunlight reaching the ground that previously had not.”
Perillo believes the overgrowth of Eagle Creek had driven most species out years prior. Now the land can become a staging grounds for biodiversity and a replenished ecosystem.
“We’re going to see a perfusion of flowering plants that don’t exist under dark, shady forest. We’re going to see new forms of plants like fireweed, a common native plant that grows after fire in areas of sun,” she said. “Those seeds were waiting until certain conditions were met.”
“Once you have a your flowers,” Perillo said, “you’re going to have a lot more insects, and insect-eating birds like bluebirds and hummingbirds because of the flowers.” Perillo envisions beds of Trillium and Lupin plants, animals returning to a once sparsely-habitable forest and a new wilderness to explore a couple of seasons down the line.
When discussing the antics of the teenagers with fireworks who set Eagle Creek on fire; neither Perillo nor Schatz harboured ill-will.
“I was 15 once,” Perillo said. Perillo believes the news media was quick to vilify a teenager and was surprised about what outraged people were saying on social media.
Schatz said, “I’ll be honest, [initially] I was just like most people; frustrated. This beautiful place I put a lot of time in has been taken away and there’s this anger of ‘You took this from me.” Schatz said on the other hand, he said he did stupid things when he was a young man and practices extending empathy to the boys.
“Fire is natural,” Perillo said. “If it wasn’t started by fireworks, it could’ve been started by lightning the next season or the next dry summer. Something would’ve happened one of these years.”