It’s been a rough week for many in Hood River.
The smoke from the Eagle Creek Wildfire, the nation’s top firefighting priority, was so thick it shut down schools. The closure of Interstate 84 has also been hard for breweries, hotels and shops that outdoor enthusiasts flock to in the summer and early fall.
For those who call the Columbia River Gorge home, the fire has been especially disruptive.
In his more than two decades in education, Hood River County School District Superintendent Dan Goldman said, “It’s been the most extraordinary start to a school year that I’ve ever been a part of.”
The district’s most affected families live in Cascade Locks, he said. Most of the town remains in a mandatory evacuation zone.
“We had to close school on the first day of school … in Cascade Locks,” he said. “That’s a first.”
And it didn’t stop there. Because of thick smoke, the entire district canceled school on Thursday, the third day of school.
The elementary school, the only school in Cascade Locks, has been relocated temporarily to Hood River’s West Side Elementary. One makeshift classroom is on the stage in the school’s auditorium.
On Wednesday, Goldman and other staff took a bus to the shelter in Stevenson, Washington, where they picked up the evacuated kids from Cascade Locks to take them to their first day of school. Once the district realized a number of families were staying at hotels in Hood River, they added those to the school bus routes as well.
“Our families are displaced and the kids are stressed out and the parents are stressed out,” Goldman said. “It’s not a typical start where there’s usually a ton of excitement and the roads of possibility are open at the beginning of the school year, and so it’s been a different feel.”
The district has rallied, providing essentials like toiletries and clothing to displaced kids and their families. It’s also staffed up trauma services at schools throughout the district.
“There are some kids, it’s really raw, and other kids who seem to be rolling with it a little bit more,” Goldman said.
With I-84 closed, the town’s economy is taking a hit too.
“There’s not much going on in downtown Hood River this week,” said Hood River Mayor Paul Blackburn. “The freeway’s been shut since Monday, first time I’ve seen that in my 17 years here.”
While wildfires occur ever year in Oregon, for residents in Hood River, the threat of danger and the level of smoke from such a major wildfire is unusual.
“When this fire was threatening Portland that was very scary for a lot of people,” Blackburn said. “The winds shifted and people said, ‘OK, now it’s not a problem anymore.’ Well guess what, it became our problem.”
Late Friday afternoon, new Level 1 evacuation notices were announced in the western parts of Hood River County, but they don’t include the town itself.
At the Hood River County Fairgrounds, a small city of more than 900 firefighters and support personnel have erected tents. In a matter of days, they’ve put up a mess hall, a shower truck and even a place to do laundry.
Joanie Schmidgall, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service working on the Eagle Creek Fire, said while the Gorge winds pose challenges and the fire continues to grow, firefighters are making some gains.
“On Monday, when the fire grew so quickly, the wind was coming out of the east and you could just feel that it was hot coming through the trees, just this hot east side breeze,” Schmidgall said. “That’s what drove the fire so much at the beginning of the week.”
With cooler winds now out of the west, she predicts, the fire’s growth won’t be quite as explosive.
Schmidgall said she drove along I-84 this week and was surprised to see how much of the Gorge remains intact.
“There’s still a lot of green trees out there,” she said. “People will be surprised, when they come back into the fire area that it’s not a moonscape and it actually looks pretty good. This place is going to recover.”
While locals like Blackburn and the school district’s Goldman say they’re grateful and very supportive of the firefighting efforts, for now, normalcy has been disrupted. And for the time being, no one knows when it might return.