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Late-season wildfire scorches tinder-dry Oregon

September 8, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
More than 80 large wildfires are burning across 10 states and at least nine firefighters have died and hundreds have been evacuated. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from Oregon about efforts to contain the Eagle Creek fire, the nation’s highest priority wildfire that has charred some 30,000 acres in the heart of the scenic Columbia Gorge.
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JOHN YANG: We turn our attention now out West, where a wet winter and spring had brought hopes for a quiet wildfire season. It’s turned out to be anything but and, in fact, could be one of the worst in American history.

More than 80 large wildfires are burning in 10 Western states. At least nine firefighters have died.

NewsHour special correspondent Cat Wise reports from the front lines of the nation’s highest-priority wildfire, about 40 miles outside Portland, Oregon.

CAT WISE: The Eagle Creek fire has charred some 30,000 acres in the heart of Oregon’s scenic Columbia River Gorge. It isn’t the biggest blaze crews are battling in the U.S., but, today, it’s considered the most threatening to public safety and property.

And the small town of Cascade Locks has been square in the path of the flames.

ERIC RISDAL, Division Supervisor, U.S. Forest Service: We have been trying to make a donut around town of burnt vegetation, so the fire can’t come into town on its own power, working under our conditions, rather than its own.

CAT WISE: U.S. Forest Service Division supervisor Eric Risdal has been overseeing crews working around the clock to protect the community and surrounding areas.

ERIC RISDAL: We have made a tremendous amount of progress with the few resources we have had, and I think the danger to Cascade Locks, we’re lessening that every day.

CAT WISE: Yesterday, after smoky conditions eased, helicopters began attacking the fire with massive buckets full of Columbia River water. It’s only 7 percent contained, but improving weather conditions are slowing its spread. The fire began over Labor Day weekend.

Bone-dry vegetation and high winds pushed the flames about 13 miles in just 16 hours between Monday and Tuesday.

Traci Weaver is a public affairs official for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

TRACI WEAVER, U.S. Forest Service: We have seen some really explosive fire behavior. A couple days ago, we reached historic peaks for a lot of our fire indices, which is incredible, because it’s really fairly late in the season for the Pacific Northwest. Usually, we’re on a serious downturn by early September.

CAT WISE: Earlier in the week, the fire dumped ash on Portland, and much of the region has been blanketed in a smoky haze deemed unhealthy to breathe by state officials.

The blaze has also closed a stretch of one of the state’s main east-west interstates, where crews are now trying to clear 2,000 trees. Only a small number of homes and buildings have been destroyed so far, but hundreds remain evacuated, including 75-year-old Sally King.

She left her home in the middle of the night on Monday and came to this Red Cross shelter in Gresham. King has volunteered for 30 years at a historic building overlooking the Columbia Gorge, and she expressed the collective heartbreak of millions of Oregonians.

SALLY KING, Evacuee: We have visitors from all over the world coming, and they are just amazed at the beauty here. It just seems to be a magical place. There’s all kinds of things to do. There’s a lot of hiking.

CAT WISE: Were you surprised at how quickly the fire spread?

SALLY KING: Yes. Yes, it did spread very fast. But we had a very wet winter, and that makes all the grasses grow, and then the rain stopped and everything went dry. We need rain. And Oregon is well known for its rain. And people are thinking, you mean you want more rain? Yes, bring it on, lord. Thank you.

CAT WISE: The Red Cross is currently sheltering about 200 people who have nowhere else to go, according to Monique Dugaw, an organization spokesperson.

MONIQUE DUGAW, American Red Cross: Our resources are all over the state. We have had a shelter open for almost four weeks at the Chetco Bar wildfire in Southern Oregon. We have two shelters open for this gorge wildfire, another one in the Eugene area.

Our folks have been going literally nonstop from the past month from one wildfire response to the next. We are preparing for this to be the norm.

CAT WISE: An investigation into the fire’s cause is ongoing, but authorities believe a teenager tossed fireworks into the woods.

The Eagle Creek fire is just one of a handful of blazes currently burning across Oregon. Altogether, the state’s wildfires have scorched more than 1,000 square miles. That’s about one-third of all the land burning across the United States.

The blazes throughout the West have drawn 26,000 firefighters, backed by upwards of 200 helicopters. Back in Oregon, the focus remains on keeping the gorge fires contained, but officials and the public are already sizing up the seemingly lasting damage.

TRACI WEAVER: It’s going to be a long, slow recovery process. Nature has evolved with fire. It will recover, but we just, as humans, need to be patient with it.

CAT WISE: In the days ahead, crews will be especially focused on protecting an area of forest called the Bull Run Watershed, which supplies Portland’s drinking water.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Cat Wise in Cascade Locks, Oregon.

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