Columbia River Gorge photo by Lorena Angell
I live in a stunningly beautiful location--The Cascade Mountain Range. To the left, out of frame and miles away, sits Mount St. Helen's volcano. To the right just out of view is Mt. Hood volcano. Carving a mile wide swath through this mountain range is the Columbia River. This shot is taken from the Cape Horn overlook in Washington, looking upriver to the east. The river is roughly a mile wide. On a clear day we can see Bonneville Dam way up at the end of the gorge. A little closer to us on the Oregon side--right side of the photo--is Multnomah Falls. The knobby mountain nearly touching the clouds on the left is Archer Mountain. My home sits along the river, on this side of Archer mountain. The view is majestic, to say the least.
Life Changes on a Dime
Sunday morning, Sept. 3rd, 2017, I awakened to a copper-colored sun peaking through the trees. I went outside to get a better look. My husband noticed ash falling from the sky. We immediately turned on the news to find Eagle Creek Trail, across the Columbia twelve miles to the east near Bonneville Dam, had a small forest fire. The result of a carefree teen and a firework--a smoke bomb--according to reports.
We haven't had a decent amount of rain in our area since June so everything is brittle dry. This dry weather pattern happens every year. It's part of what makes the area desirable for hiking and camping. Each year a burn ban on some level goes into effect from July to the end of September. A couple years ago a small fire broke out east of our place. The fire crews and a helicopter were brought in and they effectively fought the fire, extinguishing it in no time. To hear Eagle Creek Trail was on fire was both alarming and saddening. I've hiked Eagle Creek. I've been to Punch Bowl Falls and seen the beauty. Now it was burning. Hopefully the firefighters were on top of the blaze.
As we listened to the news, we heard that over 150 hikers were stranded mid-hike, blocked in by the fire, forced to hike further up the trail and shelter in place overnight. Supplies were air dropped for them--food and water. Most hadn't planned on anything more than a couple hours of hiking and swimming at Punch Bowl Falls. They weren't dressed or prepared for an overnight in the Cascades. What a scary ordeal!
The town Cascade Locks, Oregon, had evacuations ordered for certain parts and the Red Cross set up shelter across the river in Stevenson, WA. Dramatic photos and footage of the roaring fire started coming in and Oregon Department of Transportation considered closing I-84, mainly because of all the travelers stopping on the side of the road to take pictures. On top of that, the weather forecast looked ominous. The winds were about to change on Monday night and come from the east. New evacuations were listed for small communities to the west of Eagle Creek Trail.
Monday ticked by slowly as we waited to see how gusty the winds would be. The fire had already doubled in size overnight and debris was falling from the sky: charred pine needles, small twigs, large pieces of ash. The fire was spreading west. Late in the day Monday, ODOT closed I-84.
Charred pine needles fell from the sky, captured in the kale.
Before I went to bed at 12:30 am Tuesday morning I looked out the window to the east and saw orange dots shining through the night--flame. I woke my husband up and told him the flames were visible and we should go outside and see them. It was kind of exciting, in a way, probably because in my mind I was thinking these flames were still twelve miles away, so we're safe.
This is what we saw.
Eagle Creek Fire photo by Lorena Angell
Clearly the fire was racing through the gorge a whole lot faster than anyone anticipated. The winds gusted about 35 mph from the east and as we watched, small dots of light would peer through the darkness to the right of the rapidly advancing fire line.
Eagle Creek Fire photo by Lorena Angell
Over the next two hours, we watched in horror as the Eagle Creek Fire raced west on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge fueled by high east winds. We woke up the kids so they could see the fire, and also so they could help us round up belongings in the likelihood we'd need to evacuate.
Eagle Creek Fire photo by Lorena Angell
The whole horizon blazed. Wind gusts whipped by causing the fire to brighten intensely, enough to cast shadows from the bushes and trees in our yard. We could feel the heat in the air even though the mountainside was over a mile away across the river. Many vehicles traveled up and down our road during this frightening fire storm. With each one I'd wonder if it was the sheriff coming to tell us to evacuate. No. These were probably locals checking things out, trying to decide if they should evacuate. I knew a little further down our road was a better place to view the other side of the river, so Larry and I drove down there.
Eagle Creek Fire burns at Angel's Rest. Photo by Lorena Angell
We didn't know at that time an ember had traveled all the way across the river and started the Archer Mountain on fire to the immediate northeast of us. At 6:45 am we learned level 3 evacuations had been ordered for the area as far reaching as one mile from our house. The wind was still coming from the east, and given how fast the fire raged only a couple hours earlier, we didn't hesitate evacuating before the fire torched the parched forest between us. We grabbed essentials, irreplaceable items, 2/3's of our cats (one of our three cats wouldn't come out from under the deck), and loaded our cars and left.
We headed to my sister's boyfriend's house in Portland where our cats would be safe inside their garage and we could take a breath and tune into the news. The next twenty-four hours dragged on as we monitored the new evacuations listed for the Corbett and Troutdale area at the west end of the gorge. The fire was zero percent contained, however, the winds were projected to switch once again and blow to the east.
Good is Relative
As predicted, the winds shifted directions and evacuation levels were reduced to 2's and 1's. We were able to return home the next afternoon. The stubborn cat was just fine, as was our home. But not everyone was as fortunate. At the time of writing this, four homes have burned. The fight against the fire is ongoing. I-84 is still closed after nine days with a few thousand trees that need to be felled and removed to make the interstate corridor safe for travelers. It's predicted the Eagle Creek fire, along with most of the other Pacific Northwest fires will burn until the rains come in October.
I've received many well wishes and expressions of relief that my family was spared disaster. I'm relieved we didn't lose our housing or possessions, that's for sure. However, once the winds changed direction, bringing good luck to me and everyone else west of the fire, the residents to the east were now under evacuation alerts. What was good for us was not good for them, and I became sensitive to the otherwise positive well-wishers saying how happy they were the fire was heading away from me.
Sometimes I think it's hard to know what to say to someone who's going through a hard time. I know I struggle with words. After going through this ordeal I've become aware--and have a greater understanding--of what people go through in these situations. It's terrifying. It's exhausting. It's relieving (in our case) to come home and find everything okay, but guilt-inducing to know other people are suffering with loss. Realizing my family could have had a way-different outcome has made me mindful and more compassionate of my fellow human beings.
View after the fire.
I feel I've been jolted awake with awareness. Something about witnessing a massive firestorm and fearing for your safety kind of does that to you. I'm much more mindful of what's important in my life. This became evident as I gleaned over the contents of my house deciding what to take with me. My first thought was getting us out. If nothing else, we as a family would leave. Then the focus was on grabbing scrapbooks and computer hard drives, anything that had irreplaceable photos or content. Also important documents. Then medications, phone chargers, a quick cupboard raid of non-perishable food, cat supplies, change of clothes. That was pretty much it.
One thing's for sure, throughout all of this I've realized how unprepared I am for a disaster. I'll be gathering a few things that will permanently remain in my car, like a flashlight, first aid kit, and water. I'll be loading up a tote that is easier to grab all at once, holding precious memories and important documents. Along with this preparation comes having my kids identify their most treasured possessions and putting them in an easy to grab location. I don't want to find myself in the same position again, feeling scared for my life with a gnawing urgency to leave, yet stuck in a mental debate over what "things" I should take the time to grab, wondering if the extra few seconds will be the difference of life or death.
My heart goes out to everyone who is in limbo right now due to circumstances out of their control. As one of my lead characters says in my books, "We as humans naturally want to relieve suffering and avoid pain." Helping others through life's troubles brings joy. So let's get out there and spread a bunch of JOY!
The easiest way to help is to donate money to the Red Cross or a reputable charity fund.
What is your disaster plan? Do you have a "GO" bag? Have you ever had to evacuate? Have you suffered loss from a natural disaster? Leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you.