Tooke said there are about 80 large fires (defined as those burning more than 100 acres) burning nationwide. Normally at this time of the year, that number looks more like 20.
But just a little over a week after being sworn in to his new post, Tooke chose to be in Oregon, the site of two fires that have been designated as the nation’s top firefighting priorities this summer. The Eagle Creek Fire burning more than 33,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge took on that top designation Sept. 7.
“I wanted to come out here as soon as I can and learn and ask questions first hand to get an assessment of the fire situation out here,” Tooke said. “This has been a very long, tough year.”
A roster of dignitaries joined Tooke at a media briefing on the Eagle Creek Fire Saturday. The fire, which remained 7 percent contained as of Saturday, brought together a run of show that included city, county and state leaders talking about the lessons that can be learned from the fire burning in the gorge.
“This has been the longest running battle since the Trojan War,” said Sen. Ron Wyden about not having enough money to fight wildfires. “It has gone on year after year. Congressman [Peter] DeFazio, Congressman [Greg] Walden, we’ve all joined in bills to deal with this. But I believe this time can be different.”
Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said she’s heard stories of wildfires crossing the Columbia River, but she never believed them.
“I have to be frank, growing up on both sides, I found it hard to imagine until it happened a week ago, when the Eagle Creek Fire raced to the west, burning through a forest I grew up in at the doorstep of the Rose City,” Franz said.
Leaders spoke of large, devastating wildfires as the new norm.
“We’ve gotta get ahead of this problem,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio.