Genna Martin/seattlepi.com via AP
After nine grueling days working to protect homes from the massive Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge west of Hood River, local firefighters returned home Tuesday afternoon, exhausted but unscathed.
The blaze, which has grown to nearly 35,600 acres, started Saturday, Sept. 2 and is now 11 percent contained. It is one of 113 large wildfires burning in Oregon and Washington, totaling more than 1 million acres.
With so many fires straining resources around the region, the Oregon State Fire Marshal has called upon county crews to help fight the flames and keep communities safe. On Monday, Sept. 4, a task force from Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties was deployed to Cascade Locks, where the Eagle Creek fire was creeping uncomfortably close to town.
No sooner did they arrive than the inferno made its first big run, fanned by strong winds that pushed the fire 14 miles west to Corbett in a matter of hours. Casey Zellars, lieutenant with the Boardman Rural Fire Protection District and task force leader, said the scene early on was utter chaos.
“Everything was progressing really fast,” Zellars said. “We were a little sleep deprived.”
As task force leader, it was Zellars’ job to oversee a team of 16 personnel, four fire engines and one water tender, while also reporting to incident commanders to make sure tactical objectives were being met. Resources were pulled together from Boardman as well as Umatilla County Fire District in Hermiston, Umatilla Rural Fire Protection District and La Grande Rural Fire District.
Their job, Zellars said, was structure protection — specifically, helping residents to create a buffer space around their homes in case the fire approached.
“We did a lot of assessing homes to see if we could make them more defensible,” he said.
Zellars estimates the task force assisted in safeguarding 250 homes from Corbett to west of Hood River, doing things like cleaning gutters, trimming trees, removing propane tanks from near houses and setting sprinklers.
“We just have to think outside the box a little bit about what our game plan is going to be, because things can change in an instant,” Zellars said.
Jesse Brown, a firefighter and medic with Umatilla County Fire District, said the team was put to the challenge right off the bat. At about 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5, they were roused from their sleep and alerted that the blaze was on the move, forcing them to scramble to get ahead of the situation.
The Eagle Creek fire has destroyed four houses in the Gorge as of Saturday, according to reports. Witnesses say the fire was started by a group of teenagers lighting and tossing fireworks into Eagle Creek Canyon, though no charges have been filed and the official cause of the fire is listed as “unknown.”
Brown said the task force had to work quickly to orient themselves with the landscape and fuel types, which differ widely from Eastern Oregon.
“Not knowing the area and not knowing what we were heading into, we weren’t sure what we could expect,” Brown said. “We were playing catchup the first day and a half, trying to get ahead of the fire. Then it was kind of playing on our terms.”
By removing woody debris and fire fuels from around homes in the area, Brown said it gave them the best chance to weather the potential firestorm. Working together with task forces from Clackamas, Polk and Marion counties, the local crews were able to assess the entire area west of Hood River.
In return, Zellars said the community of Corbett banded together to make sure the firefighters were well fed and taken care of.
“They fed us breakfast and dinner every night,” Zellars said. “Just the support out of the Corbett community, I’ve never seen anything like that. It was just overwhelming.”
The task force was released Tuesday morning, and are set to return to work at their home stations. Zellars said they are tired, but otherwise safe and sound.
“Nine days of sleeping on the ground is enough,” he said with a laugh. “But we’re in good spirits. Our whole task force works well together.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.