Hikers Caught Between Columbia Gorge Wildfires Rescued

By Ryan Haas (OPB), Ericka Cruz Guevarra (OPB), Bryan M. Vance (OPB) and Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Sept. 3, 2017 12:26 a.m.
Eric Oftstie reunites with his wife Jenalee, 43; his son Ansel, 10; and their friend Heather Jeppesen.

Eric Oftstie reunites with his wife Jenalee, 43; his son Ansel, 10; and their friend Heather Jeppesen.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

Update: Sunday, Sept. 3, 3:45 p.m.: After spending an evening trapped between two growing wildfires in Oregon's scenic Columbia River Gorge, 153 hikers safely emerged from the forest Sunday after being rescued.


The hikers were led down the Eagle Creek Trail, near the city of Cascade Locks, where they were reunited with friends and family after spending the evening near Tunnel Falls. The hikers, which included a group of high school students from Salem, a couple on their first date, two families with children and a person hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, were trapped by the Indian Creek Fire and the fast-growing Eagle Creek Fire; the latter was reported at about 4 p.m. Saturday. Among the 153 hikers rescued were two dogs.

The group says they survived the night outside by sharing food and supplies, like a water filter and extra clothing. They also used their water bottles to douse embers that drifted near the trail and threatened to spread the fire.

Rescue crews Sunday led the stranded hikers to nearby Wahtum Lake, where buses waited to shuttle them back to the Eagle Creek Trailhead. Friends and family awaited many of the stranded hikers at the Cascade Salmon Fish Hatchery, which authorities turned into a reunification site Sunday morning as rescue efforts got underway.

Related: Firefighters Move To Contain Oregon's Eagle Creek Fire

Jenalee Ofstie, her 10-year-old son Ansel, and their friend Heather Jeppesen were on a day hike to Punchbowl Falls Saturday when the fire broke out near the Eagle Creek Trail. “We were leaving, and somebody came running back from the trail, saying 'There’s fire, turn around. It’s coming really fast,'” Jenalee said of the ordeal.

Jenalee, who said the family is on vacation from Honolulu, Hawaii, says a helicopter was supposed to evacuate Ansel and another toddler who was with the stranded group, but ultimately couldn’t land. The group hiked out with the 150 other stranded hikers and rescue crews Sunday.

The Oregon State Police said Sunday evening they believe the fire was caused by the misuse of fireworks and that a suspect has been identified.

The man-made fire grew to 3,000 acres overnight, making it difficult for search and rescue crews to escort hikers to safety Saturday. So officials opted to have the 153 hikers shelter in place for the night. The Hood River County Sheriff's Office issued a Level 3 mandatory evacuation order for about 130 homes in Cascade Locks south of Interstate 84 early Sunday morning, as the fire drew within a 1/2 mile of the city. Residents north of Interstate 84 received lesser Level 2 and Level 1 notices, depending on their proximity to the fire.

A Red Cross Shelter for evacuees has been set up immediately across the Columbia River in Stevenson, Washington.

The first wave of rescued hikers arrived at buses awaiting them at Wahtum Lake around 9:42 a.m. Sunday, according to the nonprofit volunteer search and rescue operation Mountain Wave. By 1:30 p.m., all the stranded hikers had been led down the trail to safety at Wahtum Lake.

A smaller group of three people were airlifted to safety by the Oregon National Guard Saturday evening. The sheriff's office says that group was in the most difficult location. Another group of 14 hikers were led to safety by Forest Service security personnel.


Interactive Map: Wildfires In The Columbia River Gorge

The Eagle Creek Fire and the nearby 373-acre Indian Creek Fire, which has been burning in the area since July 4, prompted the Forest Service to close the trail where the hikers were.

Rescue officials evacuated a campground on the Eagle Creek Trail Saturday.

The Eagle Creek Trail will remain closed indefinitely from High Bridge to its end point at the Pacific Crest Trail.

Warm temperatures and dry conditions since Aug. 18 caused the Indian Creek Fire to grow noticeably Saturday, with a large plume of smoke visible from Portland —  around 40 miles west.

Aircraft have been dropping water on the area since the Indian Creek Fire started.

Still, fire officials say the challenging terrain will continue to limit options for controlling the fires.

"This fire is expected to burn for a long period of time before it is controlled," a statement from fire officials said. "Sometimes the fire is producing smoke that affects nearby communities and Interstate 84 near Cascade Locks."

The fires have also closed Eagle Benson Trail No. 434, Indian Springs Trail No. 432, Eagle Tanner Trail No. 433, Chinidere Cutoff Trail No. 406M, and Tanner Butte Trail No. 401.

This story will be updated.

OPB digital producer Bradley W. Parks contributed reporting to this story.