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Fire Recovery in the Gorge Continues, Some Trails Open

Posted by Anna Roth at Jun 12, 2018 02:00 PM |

As fire season arrives, Columbia River Gorge, crews continue to work hard, assessing, repairing and stabilizing trails still closed from last year's Eagle Creek Fire.

As midsummer approaches, so does fire season, even as some areas are still feeling the effects of last year's fires.

In the Columbia River Gorge, crews continue to work hard, assessing, repairing and stabilizing trails still closed from last year's Eagle Creek Fire that burned through the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area and Mt. Hood National Forest. Though the fire was officially contained in late November of last year, the fire is still has not yet been declared out, hence the continued closure. 

helicopter over smoke
A helicopter hovers over smoke from a fire in 2017. Photo by Samuel Cukierman

Flaming Rootballs! Still too hot to hike

As recently as May 29, a hotspot flared up a half mile east of the Herman Creek Trailhead, which is near Cascade Locks. The hotspot was smoldering in heavy downed timber with little nearby ground fuel (the fire burned mostly the forest's understory). An incident like this is not unusual—heavy fuels and organic material known as duff can hold heat underground over winter and flare back up after a period of warm dry weather. 

"It's a surprise to most people—it doesn't seem to make sense—but it's actually a common occurrence," Rachel Pawlitz, Public Affairs and Community Engagement Officer for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area said.

"We may see a few more of these and we're keeping a close eye on it. It's a reminder of the reason many of these areas remain closed." 

The flareup was dealt with quickly by forest service crews, but it provided a good illustration of why hikers should avoid closed areas. In addition to the fact that entry into closed areas is illegal, additional hazards aside from flaming rootballs exist. Fire-weakened trees and loose boulders can unpredictably fall on trails, and rockslides and landslides are an ongoing concern.

Elaine and Pat Keavney eat lunch during an Eagle Creek Fire recovery project. Photo by US Forest Service
Volunteers and WTA assistant crew leaders Elaine and Pat Keavney eat lunch during an Eagle Creek Fire recovery project. Photo by US Forest Service.

Specialized Skill Set

A select group of volunteers, partnering with the forest service, is leading the effort to restore trails. Some of those volunteers have gained skills and experience in WTA's community, including Elaine and Pat Keavney (pictured above). Though their orange hard hats look like the ones they wear as assistant crew leaders with WTA, for the Gorge recovery efforts, they're working with our friends at Trailkeepers of Oregon. They and the rest of the specialized crew have have had special training for working in recent burn areas. 

(some Trails) Open for Business

Luckily, some trails on the east side of the closure have reopened, including Starvation Creek State Park. Because of the limited access to the Oregon side of the Gorge, the open trails here have been heavily-visited, but parking is limited.

The forest service (and WTA) suggest carpooling, getting there early, or going mid-week. Remember that while these trails are open, there are still natural hazards at Starvation Ridge and on the Mount Defiance trail—these are rugged trails. The Forest Service has listed which trails are open and closed here (pdf).

If rugged isn't your cup of tea, Multnomah Falls Lodge and the lower viewing platform are open, too. But they're only accessible via the I-84 parking lot. During periods of high use, a shuttle from Rooster Rock State Park is available to alleviate congestion in the I-84 lot; follow the signs on I-84 if the lot is full.

Give it Time & Explore

If you're ansty to get hiking out there, be patient. Crews are working hard to make it safe for the public to return to their favored stomping grounds. In the meantime, remember that there's another side to the GorgeWashington! While many of the trails right on the river have plenty of visitation, there are many further north, outside of Carson or White Salmon that could use some hikers. 

Washington State Parks staff encourages you to explore the less-well-known locations, such as Crawford Oaks and Horsethief Butte, or to hike in nearby Brooks Memorial State Park. Go big, and consider bikepacking the Klickitat Rail Trail.

Life Finds a Way 

Though the fire isn't even officially done burning, the forest floor is already rebounding. Ferns, trilliums and other wildflowers peeped out from the soil earlier this year, thanks to the abundant moisture and sun in the Gorge. 

newt and fern.jpg
Newts and ferns making appearances in the Gorge are signs of hope and recovery after the fire. Photos courtesy US Forest Service.

Unfortunately, some of those blooms are those of invasive plants like garlic mustard or shiny geranium, and they're a serious threat to the rebounding species in the Gorge. Invasive plants are a constant concern, but with the bare earth just beginning bounce back, newly-exposed soil is an invitation for unwanted greenery.

So, in addition to volunteer crews working hard to repair trails, other volunteers with Friends of the Gorge have taken to the burn area. In partnership with the Forest Service and Oregon Parks and Recreation, they're mitigating the spread of these plant by removing them as they emerge.

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