Despite an announcement in late June that the iconic Benson Bridge is now open, Multnomah Falls seems to only begrudgingly welcome visitors. Entrance into the National Forest is difficult. Heading east on the I-84, it’s almost impossible. The only available parking near the Falls is in the Multnomah Lodge overflow lot and traveling from nearby Portland, the lot’s entrance is closed. Further on down the road is Exit 35, which leads to all three of the Falls situated around The Lodge (Horsehead, Multnomah and Waheena). The exit is open, but the road heading west, towards the falls is also closed. As such, the only accessible path to The Lodge is via the Interstate heading west. Once parked, the small space open to visitors feels cramped. Fences block off huge swathes of the National Forest, all festooned with green signs that explain in white text the closure of the forest’s upper trails. While the Lodge itself is open, along with its gift shop, restaurant and visitor’s center, it is clear that the park is still recovering from the devastation of 2017’s Eagle Creek Fire. Forest service rangers lounge out in front of the Lodge, watching eager visitors make the meager hike up to Benson Bridge for a photo opportunity. It’s hard to tell how many of the visitors realized that the majority of the National Forest is closed, since they show up in T-shirts, and baseball caps, carrying backpacks and pushing strollers. But once you look at the forest beyond the paved path up to Benson Bridge, it becomes easy to see the lingering scars from the fire.
On September 2nd, 2017 a 15-year old young man was playing with fireworks in the Columbia Gorge. The day was hot and dry, with temperatures climbing into the high 80’s and even cresting at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The young man (whose name has not been released to the public, per the juvenile criminal policy) was witnessed hurling a smoke bomb into the canyon below. Almost immediately smoke began to climb out of the gorge. Within minutes of witnesses notifying the Forest Service of smoke, six-foot tall flames were cresting throughout the Gorge. The Eagle Creek Fire was quick, ruthless and tenacious. By the dawn of September 3rd, the fire had grown to 3,000 acres and on the fifth, embers drifted across the Columbia River to spark a secondary fire in Washington state. 153 hikers were trapped by the blaze, forcing emergency responders and the Forest Service moved quickly to rescue all of them. Luckily by the morning of the 3rd all of them had been bused out off of the trails. Similarly, the small town of Cascade Locks, Oregon had to be evacuated due to its proximity to the growing inferno. On September 6th, the Eagle Creek Fire merged with the growing Indian Creek Fire, thus putting 31,000 acres of land actively aflame.
The fire raged for the better part of a month. By September 28th, close to 49,000 acres of land had been lost to the blaze. Meanwhile, the Forest Service had only manged to contain approximately 46% of the fire. Air quality had degraded for the Columbia River Gorge, and for the nearby cities of Portland and Vancouver throughout the month. October brought some relief as the notoriously wet Pacific Northwest rainy season kicked in. But it wasn’t until November 30th, a full 90 days after the fire was first started that the Forest Service announced the fire was 100% contained. Through the hard work and dedication of hundreds of firefighters and forest service professionals, the fire had only managed to consume 50,000 acres of land. In the end, the containment efforts cost the Forest Service over 20 million dollars.
Fire damage to a forest goes far beyond simply burning down trees. Fire can cause damage to trees and other large vegetation but the most vulnerable plants are the moss, lichen and undergrowth on the forest floor. Especially for forests growing in otherwise rocky soil like in the Columbia River Gorge. This can cause even more damage to the environment as the undergrowth literally helps soil and larger plant life cling to the hillsides. Without the “glue,” holding the forest together, stones and even trees are at risk of becoming unstable and falling into the Gorge. Even before the fire, the lower paths heading up to the Falls were protected by large, steel fences, bracing against the danger of falling rocks and trees. Now, such dangers are even more evident and debris is visible between the switchbacks of the trail leading up to the bridge. While the trees and larger vegetation of the region largely endured the fire (though not without scarring) the forest floor was quite nearly annihilated. But while the ground floor of the forest suffered the most damage, it is also beginning to show signs of recovery. The forest floor around the Falls is lit up by a mosaic of the green of new growth. Because while the undergrowth suffers the most it’s also the first to spring back from the damage. Frankly, the contrast between the burned treeline and the recovering foliage below is quite beautiful.
That said, despite the ostensibly positive signs of recovery, the road is expected to be long and arduous. Unlike some trails further into the Gorge, there is no plan to reopen the upper trails around The Falls, at least for the foreseeable future. And yet, business doesn’t seem to have slowed. Fire or not, The Falls are the most famous scenic location in the Columbia River Gorge. The Lodge itself was commissioned in 1915 (it was completed in 1925) but at that point, Multnomah Falls was already a tourist destination and it had been a stopping point for both trains and river boats. In the same year, the Lodge’s chief financier, Simon Benson (for whom the iconic bridge is named) donated 1,500 acres to the City of Portland. The forest would be turned over to the newly created Forest Service in 1943 and in 1981 the Lodge was added to the National Register of Historical Places. On my visit, the visitor’s center and gift shop were packed and the restaurant was doing brisk business, even boasting an award for 2018 service. And none of this is to say that the forest as a whole isn’t open to explore. While wandering the visitors center I struck up a conversation with a very nice volunteer named Ray. Ray told me about the Dry Creek Falls trail a few miles east of Multnomah Falls, near the once evacuated town of Cascade Locks. The trail back to Dry Creek Falls is part of the Pacific Crest Trail and the trail workers who maintain the PCT have worked hard to clear the trail for the season. In June, the trail was reopened to the public to much celebration.
In some regards, it is easy to see why the Forest Service has been hesitant to reopen the trails in and around the Falls. Wildfire season has only gotten longer and worse in recent years. In addition to the Eagle Creek Fire, the state of Oregon reported some 1068 fires in the state. This includes the Chetco Bar Fire in Curry County located in the southwestern corner of the state. The Chetco Bar Fire started in early June of 2017 and consumed over 191,000 acres of land. It wasn’t fully contained until early November. The Chetco Bar Fire was only overshadowed by the Eagle Creek Fire because of the cause of the later. There’s certainly something scandalous about the worst fire in the Columbia Gorge being started by an errant firework. In contrast, the Chetco Bar Fire was started by a bolt of lightning. Either way, the two fires were only a small fraction of the 2017 wild fire season, which saw a grand total of 451,863 acres burned over the course of the summer in Oregon alone. And there’s no signs of abatement this year. To the south in California, the Carr Fire is currently working its way through the northern portion of the state. Having already burned through over 167,000 acres, it is already the sixth worse fire in state history. The fire is only 47% contained and has amassed a count of seven deaths. But even the Carr Fire’s path of destruction pales in comparison to the Mendocino Complex Fire. Called the worst fire in modern state history, the blaze has engulfed over 290,000 acres and is showing no signs of slowing down. Meanwhile, Oregon seems to have been largely spared from quite so severe a season as the state has only suffered about 262,000 acres lost.
Sadly, longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons are going to be a fact of life moving forward. Such challenges are a direct result of Global Warming, as foliage and plant life becomes drier and bouts of precipitation less and less frequent. There is no simple fix for this problem and the Forest Service and state firefighters are going to have to simply dig in their heels. Unfortunately, even such an apolitical issue as fighting wildfires has become a partisan issue, with the president tweeting out his errant opinion on the matter late on Sunday August 5th. While high profile, the president’s (now deleted) tweet was characteristically unfocused. What’s more, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has made his own opinion on California’s use of its reservoirs known by advocating for adjustments to the state’s laws regarding conservation and use of reservoir water.
Which brings us back to Multnomah Falls. Keeping the trails surrounding the Falls closed for the foreseeable future might be in the region’s best interest. The Gorge’s recovery will be a long and arduous one. And while some trails are expected to be opened by the end of the year, many have no opening date in site. In the meantime, it is possible to help. Nonprofits like Friends of the Gorge are doing their part to help raise money and awareness for recovery operations. Charities like The Trailkeepers of Oregon have donated money and time towards helping the Forest Service clear and rebuild trails. The residents of the Columbia River Gorge and Oregon as a whole are working with the Forest Service to shoulder the burden and continue along the long road to recovery. Maybe someday soon trails to Larch Mountain, Devil’s Rest and more will be crawling with hikers. And when they do, hopefully those trekkers will be more appreciative of this land and mindful of the effect that we can have upon it.
Thank you for reading.