Eagle Creek Fire smoke visible from an adjacent highway. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Oregon has undertaken recovery efforts after the destruction caused by the Eagle Creek Fire that started September 2. Due to east winds and high summer temperatures, the fire rapidly increased in size as it pushed westward. The Eagle Creek Fire endangered many wild animals, homes, livestock, and over 150 hikers trapped on trails and in camping grounds. As of October 13, the most recent statistic available at the time of publication, the National Wildlife Coordinating Group reported the fire to be 50% contained with over 48,000 acres worth of damage. With cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels, the expected fire growth is minimal.

It is important to remember that fire—even fire caused by humans—is a necessary part of nature and the forest’s ecosystem; without the occasional burn, it would become overgrown. The next step that faces the Columbia River Gorge is called secondary succession. “Forests have to go through this process of reestablishing a healthy ecosystem,” explained Matt Stewart, biology teacher at Franklin. Succession is a natural biological process that is necessary for rebuilding forests that have been largely removed. Fungi already lie among the ash from the fire, which are working to compose the soil that will be the foundation of the early stages of the forest’s regrowth. Slowly, sunlight will encourage new small plants to enrich the soil structure, allowing for larger trees to thrive. This process, if completed naturally, would take several hundreds of years, but it could be accelerated by the distribution of seeds by humans.

Fran McReynolds, Director of the Tillamook Forestry Center, explained how after the four Tillamook Forest Fires (1933-1951) that created 354,936 acres worth of damage, people from all over Oregon came out and hand-planted 76,000 acres worth of seeds. The extent of the four Tillamook Forest Fires were much more extreme than those of the the Eagle Creek Fire, and many community members around Tillamook believed that the forest would never be revived. However, in 1948, a state bond was passed that led to the planting of 72 million seeds and helicopter seeding that continued until the 1970s and helped restore the forest to its plush beauty.

The Tillamook State Forest restoration process speaks to the hope of full reassembly of the much adored Columbia River Gorge. McReynolds also described how the surrounding Tillamook community benefitted from the complete regrowth of the forest because of how much people value it. Similarly, it is the human interference in restoring hiking trails and wildlife habitat in the Gorge that could benefit the neighboring communities and heal the wounds caused by this tremendous damage. However, Stewart made sure to articulate that the process of fire restoration can only be supported and sped up to a certain degree. “[We] have to work in concert with nature, the natural processes, and human interference.” If you are looking to have a direct impact with the restoration efforts in the Gorge, the Columbia River Gorge Recovery Project encourages support through donations of time, supplies, or money.

People living in the Gorge hope to get back in their homes as soon as possible.

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