Still from Topic's Forest on Fire

Image: Topic

One year ago, on September 2, 2017, a teenager threw a firecracker into a ravine on the Eagle Creek Trail, sparking a massive wildfire that covered 50,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge and would take more than three months to contain. Local filmmaker Reed Harkness was swimming in the nearby Washougal River when ash began to rain down on him. "I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I was really upset once I got back and I heard the news and I saw those headlines about the teens giggling—I was really angry. Everybody was. I felt just deeply sad, by the loss of this natural area."

Forest on Fire, a 30-minute documentary directed by Harkness for Topic magazine (and available for free online), tells the story of that devastating blaze through the eyes of those who lived it: the woman who came across the firecracker-throwing teens and first reported the blaze; the people stranded by the fire and forced to march their way out; and the local citizens who stayed behind to support the firefighters. The film splices together interviews, maps, original footage of the Gorge, and cell phone footage to bring the story to the screen.

In and around Portland, the blaze sparked an outpouring of grief, sadness, and anger on social media and in the press. The teen responsible was eventually ordered to pay $36 million in restitution and serve a decade of probation, but that did little to assuage the shock of Oregonians at nearly losing one of the state's most iconic National Scenic Areas.

"For me, the Gorge is the symbol of home in this region," says Harkness. "It’s probably a reason that many of us live here. So when your home’s threatened, it’s a big deal. Now, of course, people in Cascade Locks and Corbett and Warrendale and Dodson—their homes were actually threatened. So I can see why there’s so much emotion around it. I felt it too."

Is it all bad news? Definitely not.

"What I started to learn is, first of all, the forest is doing all right. It was a mosaic burn," says Harkness, referring to the fire's patchy burn pattern. "We had access to the Eagle Creek Trail through the Forest Service and hiked that a couple times [during the filming]. That’s a very familiar trail to me. Being the epicenter, I imagined it would just be completely black and not recognizable. That wasn’t the case. It was the same trail, the same scenic beauty. There’s evidence of burning along the trail, but it wasn't devastated in my opinion. At Punchbowl Falls, you can barely tell that there's been fire there. You really have to look for it."

Watch the full documentary here.

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