Crews are beginning to do “a lot of assessment,” said Sandy Roberts with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office. Crews are just beginning to understand the damage done to the iconic river canyon.
“This whole area is our playground — it’s what we love and what we love to recreate in,” said Traci Weaver, a fire communications specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. “What we ask you to remember is this is not a short-term event.”
Part of that assessment includes a look at at least 2,000 damaged trees for their potential for falling onto the now-closed I-84 below. Officials expect that number to grow. But volatile and unsafe conditions are making it difficult for the Oregon Department of Transportation to send crews to assess them. ODOT said I-84 will remain closed from Hood River to Troutdale through the weekend and possibly even longer. There is no estimate yet for when it will re-open.
“I’ve gotta say that I-84 at this moment is a bit of a mess, just because of the number of trees that have fallen, the number of trees that might fall, the number of rocks that are all over the road” said Dave Thompson with ODOT on a tour of I-84 Thursday. “The only way we can be on the road is because the snow plows came out.”
The fire, which started last Saturday afternoon, has burned more than 33,000 acres and is the nation’s top firefighting priority. Weaver said what makes this fire unique is its 13-mile run in just a 16-hour period, fast-moving activity for a Gorge fire — fires she said rarely get this big.
“That’s just all indications of very dry, volatile conditions at historic levels for us this time of year,” Weaver said.
Police say a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington, is a suspect in the case. They believe he and others may have started the fire by playing with fireworks at Eagle Creek Canyon.
At a press conference Friday morning, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said firefighters in Oregon have the money to tackle the blaze — for now. Emergency aid to help victims of Hurricane Harvey now also includes additional money to battle wildfires in Oregon and other western states. Wyden called it a temporary fix.
“We have to use this moment,” Wyden said when talking about obtaining federal funds for firefighting efforts. “If you short-change fire prevention, what happens is you may save some money today, but you’re going to spend whole lot more down the road when fires that would’ve been smaller become infernos.”
As firefighting efforts continue, crews will be looking for opportunities to minimize impact to the Bull Run watershed — a drinking water source for about a million Oregonians. The U.S. Forest Service said it’s prioritizing the watershed where a spot fire moved into the management area nearby.
Weaver said the concern would be if a fire were to establish itself at one of the drainages that feed into the watershed, or on a slope above the reservoir that could lead to runoff.
On Friday, the Portland Water Bureau was told by Incident Command that less than 1 percent of the Bull Run Watershed Management Unit has burned. Firefighters who went into the watershed Thursday said water supply structures were “highly defensible,” and the Bureau said drinking water from the Bull Run remains safe to drink.
Weather in the burn area will be cloudy and cool through Sunday, with a chance of light showers, according to the National Weather Service in Portland.
The cool conditions will buy crews time to build lines and bring some containment to the fire, NWS meteorologist Colby Neuman said. But on Monday, things are expected to dry out.
“[Firefighters] have some time to do what they can; the weather will be in their favor,” Neuman said. “Starting Monday, the weather will be transitioning to the kind of weather that could certainly increase fire behavior and fire activity.”
This article will be updated.