Environment | Local | Northwest Wildfires

Gorge Fire Forces Evacuations, Displaces Hundreds

OPB | Aug. 7, 2014 4:46 p.m. | Updated: Aug. 7, 2014 7:17 p.m. | The Dalles

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A smoky haze hung in the air as residents in The Dalles woke this morning to a charred hillside on the west end of town.

The fire grew to over 2600 acres by Thursday morning, but fire crews had a bulldozed a line around it and some evacuation orders were being lifted.

The 2,600-acre Rowena Fire continues to burn in the Columbia River Gorge, forcing the evacuation of hundreds as the fire spreads east.

Crews say they’ve been able to make progress, but the fire remains zero percent contained.

More than 430 fire fighters continue to work the fire.

So far the estimated cost of fighting the fire is $937,000.

The cause is under investigation.

Some residents spent the night in a Red Cross shelter.

Rudy Richardson was one of about 15 people who spent the night at the Dry Hollow Elementary School in The Dalles. He got the late-night word to evacuate his home.

“I was playing X-Box,” Richardson says. “Me and my little man over here was playing X-Box. Next thing you know the sheriff came to the door and told us we had to evacuate.”

Richardson says when he got to the shelter around 1 a.m. he was feeling nervous about his home.

“It was a learning experience. I never in my life have been in an evac situation … so being evacuated from your home is kind of scary,” Richardson says.

Wednesday night, fire officials expanded mandatory evacuations to 275 homes and structures, displacing an estimated 600 people.

For those fighting the fire here it was a very long night, too.

The Gorge presents unique challenges, says Terry Lucich, who came to help along with 15 other fire fighters from Yamhill County.

“The Gorge is always tricky,” Lucich says. “It’s just because of the terrain and the wind. The winds are usually what drives fire — and it’s warm here.”

He says they’re protecting structures while the Oregon Department of Forestry works to secure a fire line.

Dave Wells is a spokesperson for ODF.

“In the evening as the fire probably crawled up one of the ridges and caught that wind that’s when it took off and grew almost the 2,300 acres,” Wells says.

By early Thursday morning, fire crews on the ground aided by water dumps from helicopters had formed a bulldozer line around much of the Rowena Fire.

Inside the evacuation zone, homes sit at the base of the steep hillsides that make up the walls of the Gorge. A roof mounted sprinkler wets down the cedar shakes, guarding against stray sparks while the owners are away.

“What you’re seeing is fire actively backing down towards these structures along Highway 30,” says Wells, pointing to thick smoke spewing from trees on the hillside above. “There’s a lot of heat and potentially flame that you don’t even see being fanned by the strong winds out here, maybe 20 miles per hour, gusting to 30.”

On Thursday, fire officials allowed a handful of homeowners living west of the fire to return home, but they also cautioned that quickly shifting winds could  prompt additional evacuations.

Craig Thomasian, a resident of Rowena, says he along with his wife and two daughters were among those already evacuated.

“The neighborhoods all around in this little neighborhood here, we’re all pretty right knit, and down here along the river as well,” Thomasin says. “They’ve been really supportive. I’ve probably had six different people offer we could stay at their place, so everyone’s kind of banning together like they do around here and helping us, offering support.”

 

 

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