Beyond Eagle Creek: So Much Fire, So Close to Home

Yes, the Columbia Gorge is our backyard. But that fire is small potatoes compared to blazes elsewhere in Oregon.

By Margaret Seiler September 8, 2017

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The Chetco Bar Fire in southern Oregon currently covers more than 175,000 acres.

As of September 7, the Eagle Creek–Indian Creek fire had a perimeter area of about 33,000 acres, from Bridal Veil to Cascade Locks, plus about 200 acres across the Columbia where the Archer Mountain fire was burning, according to the state Department of Forestry. That’s equivalent to just over one-third the area of Portland’s city limits, in a place many locals consider their own backyard. The alleged culprits are stock villains in the story of the city: minivan-driving post-millennials from the suburbs, staring at their screens and blind to their impact on the world around them. As we worry about our friends in Corbett and Cascade Locks and grieve for what’s being lost, it’s easy to forget that Eagle Creek is not the only fire burning in the state, and it’s far from the largest.

In Oregon’s southwest corner, the lightning-caused Chetco Bar Complex has been burning for eight weeks and now reaches to within five miles of the Pacific Ocean and the town of Brookings, near the California border. It’s largely burning in the path of the Biscuit fire, which burned an area of nearly half a million acres (that’s larger than Washington County) over several months in 2002. Ranging 20 to 40 miles west of Bend is another group of fires centered on the Horse Creek Complex fire and covering nearly twice as much area altogether. A crescent of wildfires extends from just east of Roseburg past Crater Lake, with parts of Highway 138 and Crater Lake National Park’s north entrance closed. Due to a cluster of fires just east of Detroit Lake (both human- and lightning-caused), Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center, which bills itself as “a sanctuary of timeless natural beauty,” has been dealing with smoke and road closures off and on since July. Last week, the facility was evacuated. It’s closed through September 25.

Oregon’s largest recorded forest fire, called the Silverton fire, happened in 1865, when the population of the new state was about 1/50th of what it is today. The most storied fire to have happened close to Portland may be the Tillamook Burn, which was actually a series of wildfires over two decades. In 1933, the largest in the series began amid logging activity during extreme temperatures in August, and did not slow until the rain started in September. (Learn more about the Tillamook Burn and its restoration from the online Oregon Encyclopedia.)

Washington state’s largest forest fire of the 20th century is known as the Yacolt Burn, which destroyed more than 238,000 acres in Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania Counties in September 1902. The cause wasn’t immediately clear; suspected culprits included careless loggers, train sparks, fishers who were sloppy with their campfires, landowners using fire to clear their plots, and boys burning a wasps’ nest. Or it may have started when a fire in Oregon, near where the Eagle Creek fire is burning now, jumped the river. The fire spurred local landowners and governments to start developing a more organized response system, and part of the burned area has become the Yacolt Burn State Forest. (Vancouver’s Columbian reports on a suddenly timely history exhibit on the Burn at the Battle Ground Community Library.)

More recently, in July 2012 the Long Draw fire in Oregon’s southeastern corner burned more than 550,000 acres of Malheur County in barely more than a week. Following a winter of little snow and a spring of below-average rainfall, the lightning-strike fire spread quickly through dry grass and low scrub. Some cattle were killed in the fire, and grazing arrangements in the area were complicated by the fire and its aftermath for years to come.  

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