The Eagle Creek and Indian Creek wildfires — responsible for stranding 153 hikers near Tunnel Falls on Saturday — have merged and were burning more than 32,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, fire officials confirmed. Containment is at 0 percent. In Washington, the Archer Mountain Fire, likely started by embers from the Oregon wildfires, was approximately 112 acres as of late Wednesday morning.
Map: Eagle Creek Fire
“The Gorge still looks like the Gorge,” Lt. Damon Simmons with the Oregon Fire Marshal’s Office said Wednesday morning after driving through it. “It’s not a blackened destructed no man’s land. There’s trees everywhere and they look good. That’s not to say there’s not damage to those trees and they won’t have to be removed in the future.”
Police said Tuesday that a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington, is a suspect in the case. They believe he and four to five others may have started the fire by playing with fireworks near the Eagle Creek trailhead. Officials said Wednesday that the suspect’s family is cooperating with law enforcement during their investigation. They also asked for any more witnesses, specifically those with photos or video of the incident, to step forward.
Re: 15-year-old who possibly started #EagleCreekFire. Police say one of the key questions they’re investigating is intent.— Ryan Haas (@ryanjhaas) September 6, 2017
Oregon State Police Lt. Bill Fugate says investigators have to determine the facts of the case before charges can be filed.
“[The goal] in any case is to show culpability. Was this a negligent act? A reckless act? Was it an intentional arson to start a forest fire? That’s part of the investigation. So, depending on what we can establish, that will change the levels of charging that the district attorney can review,” he said.
Firefighting conditions improved during the day Wednesday, as highs reached the mid-80s and winds remained relatively weak, according to the National Weather Service in Portland. But with thunderstorms in the forecast starting Wednesday night, there’s a chance for more trouble in the coming days.
“Unfortunately, these storms don’t seem like they’ll be producing a ton of rain,” Will Ahue, a meteorologist with the NWS said. “It’s hard to tell how much lightning they’ll produce, but we could see a stray lightning strike here or there that could, unfortunately, potentially start another fire.”
Kent Nelson with the Eagle Creek Fire Joint Information Center said crews hope to take advantage of the more favorable conditions by increasing the number of water drops by helicopter. He expressed concern that forecasted thunderstorms could spark smaller fires in coming days. Nelson also noted that crews are doing some controlled burns near Cascade Locks to clean up any fuel that is still lying around.
Firefighters have primarily focused their efforts on protecting property and lives as the fire quickly moved westward through the Gorge toward heavily populated Portland suburbs early this week. That focus is not expected to change Wednesday.
The Multnomah Falls Lodge, a historic attraction at the site of Oregon’s tallest waterfall, was saved by crews after an intense day of firefighting Tuesday.
“Firefighters had a good day out there,” said Ian Yocum, an incident commander with the Oregon Fire Marshal’s Office. “We lost one small residential structure and four outbuildings. We will continue to patrol and assess structural protection needs.”
About seven fire crews, consisting of 602 personnel, nine helicopters, 88 fire engines, two bulldozers, 21 water tenders and 20 structural task forces, are working the Eagle Creek Fire.
Though fire activity slowed Wednesday morning, it still threatens numerous communities, tourist attractions and resources in Oregon’s scenic Columbia River Gorge. Those include the Bull Run Watershed, the source of 1-in-5 Oregonians’ drinking water.
Interstate 84, a major U.S. highway running along Oregon’s side of the Gorge, remains closed to all traffic from Troutdale to Hood River due to the fire and debris on the road. Highway 30, the historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, is also closed. The Bridge of the Gods is open only to northbound traffic fleeing the Eagle Creek Fire. The U.S. Coast Guard Tuesday closed the Columbia River to all vessel traffic east of Portland.
And the fire’s eastern flank continues to burn near parts of the Bonneville Power Administration’s lines and other infrastructure.
The fire has caused widespread evacuations on both sides of the Gorge: 225 people spent the night in two shelters Tuesday night due to the fire. The following communities and areas in Hood River and Multnomah counties in Oregon and Skamania County in Washington are under evacuation notices due to the fire:
- Cascade Locks residents north of Wa Na Pa Street have been under a mandatory Level 3 evacuation notice — meaning leave now — since Sunday.
- The rest of Cascade Locks remains under a Level 2 notice, meaning be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
- All public and forest lands in Hood River County west of Highway 281 and north of Mount Hood are under a Level 1 notice.
- Warrendale, Dodson, Larch Mountain, Latourell, Bridal Veil and Corbett east of the 38700 block of the Columbia River Highway are all under a Level 3 notice.
- Corbett and Springdale west of the 38700 block of the Columbia River Highway to the Sandy River remain under a Level 2 notice.
- Troutdale — east of 257th Avenue, north of Stark and west of the Sandy River — is under a Level 1 notice.
- In Skamania County, Washington, a Level 3 notice is in effect for McCloskey Creek, Kellet Road, Victoria Lane, Franz Road, Archer Mountain Road, Smith Cripe Road, Deville Drive, Dimrill Dale Drive and Wakina Road.
- In Skamania County, Washington, a Level 2 notice is in effect Mabee Mines Road, Patrick Lane, Hillsberry Road and Foggy Ridge Road.
Air quality also continues to be an issue in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. Officials Wednesday morning said the quality is better but still dangerous, especially for vulnerable populations. Further east on both sides of the Gorge and across much of the state, the rating is listed as unhealthy.
In Clark County, Washington, the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts announced all outdoor after-school activities and practices for Wednesday were moved indoors or canceled due to air quality concerns. For Portland Public Schools, all outdoor sports were canceled and all recess classes were moved indoors.
Ryan Haas, Kim Freda, Geoff Norcross and Ericka Cruz Guevarra contributed reporting to this story.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article noted a containment percentage that fire officials revised shortly after publication.