Labor Day weekend marks the second anniversary of the start of the Eagle Creek Fire, which burned almost 50,000 acres of forest land in the Columbia River Gorge.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, and more than 70% of the trails that were impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire are now reopened,” said Rachel Pawlitz, public affairs officer for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
About 150 miles of trail were closed as a result of the fire. Now, more than 100 miles of trail have been reopened.
The fire was started by a then-15-year-old boy using fireworks. The boy pleaded guilty to 12 charges including burning on forest land.
He is required to complete about 2,000 hours of community service and pay almost $37 million in restitution.
The director of the Hood River County Juvenile Department said the boy is in compliance with court orders but declined to provide any specific details.
Pawlitz said the fire was a reminder to be careful in nature. For example, fireworks are always illegal on federal public lands, she said.
Still, Pawlitz said, the Gorge is in no way “ruined.”
“After the fire came through, people were extremely sad, understandably so — and it felt like the Gorge had been ruined or destroyed,” she said. “Even though the fire was started by an unnatural cause … the plants and animals in the area are adaptive to fire. There’s always been natural fires caused by lightning.”
“The Gorge isn’t dead,” she said.
Pawlitz said lesser-burned areas are beginning to look greener. There are also signs of plants and even trees growing back.
After the Eagle Creek Fire, the Forest Service along with Friends of the Columbia Gorge, have worked on a trail ambassador program.
“The concept is that we have visitors around the world that come to the Gorge that don’t necessarily know where to go or what to do,” she said. “We have these folks at trailheads providing information — where to go, how to leave no trace and just basic safety information.”
Pawlitz said the next step will hopefully be reopening the popular 14-mile Eagle Creek Trail, which crosses from the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to the Mount Hood National Forest. There’s no timeline for that yet.