SKAMANIA COUNTY, Wash. (KOIN) — The Eagle Creek Fire jumped across the Columbia River late Monday night, torching dry forest land in Skamania County.
When the fire exploded Saturday afternoon and again Monday, Washington residents watched their volunteer firefighters race across the river to help protect the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.
But then the fire jumped the river when embers likely landed on Archer Mountain about 10.5 miles northwest of North Bonneville.
Everyone, including Sheriff Dave Brown, watched the Eagle Creek Fire move with unbelievable speed.
“We were seeing the fire jump a mile at a time and it was crowning in trees and just exploding,” the sheriff told KOIN 6 News. “I think the hard part is that we can’t get the other resources here – state resources, federal resources. Everybody is stretched so thin across, not only Washington and Oregon, but really the entire western United States right now.”
As of 2 p.m. Monday, about 60 homes were evacuated by the rapid blaze. An evacuation spot was set up at the Rock Creek Center at the Skamania County Fairgrounds. The Red Cross is there, along with church and community groups providing food and shelter.
“My neighbor called me about 2:30 this morning, says Archer Mountain is on fire and it just blew me away,” resident Dave Kuhn told KOIN 6 News. “It’s been hectic, you know, watching the fire move to the west.”
Ed Jaska hasn’t been home since he was forced to evacuated early Sunday morning. Now he’s worried when he’s finally able to go back he won’t recognize his home.
“I haven’t seen it yet and you know,” Jaska said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to drive down the freeway to see it now.”
Jaska said the good news is that firefighters were able to save his house.
“At one point it was close enough that we could see the individual trees burning, going up in flames,” Jaska said.
Dave Rogers, who lives nearby, said that area is “steep and dry and inaccessible.” Crews told KOIN 6 News that steep, rocky terrain is making it very difficult to fight the fire. They want to get helicopters in the air to drop water on it, but the smoke is just too thick at this time.
Undersheriff Pat Bond said the steep, rocky terrain makes it difficult. “You can drive within a mile or 2 of that, and then it’s, you’re on foot.”
The Archer Fire is in an area that is “steep, dry and inaccessible.”
Bond said helicopters have been requested but “the problem we have is the low ceiling due to smoke and the amount of smoke we have here you have to be able to see to dump the water. So if we get a clearing or we get a break I would think that the DNR will bring in air support.”
The weather is the continued key, he said, noting if the wind bumps it west there may be Level 2 evacuations in the area along the Washougal River.
“We urge people to stay off of SR-14, not to drive it right now. It’s closed to commercial traffic,” he said, though they are letting supply trucks with food, fuel and water through.
“We’ve had issues with cars blocking the road to see the fire in Cascade Locks. It’s difficult for us to respond when people are blocking and running across the highway. Avoid it if you can.”
About 30 people from the Larch Mountain Correctional Camp who are trained in fire suppression are among the firefighters battling the Archer Fire.
Burns said the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office is working 12-hour shifts, often longer. But their mission remains keeping people safe.
“This is our community. We want to keep everyone safe,” he said. “It’s the unknown for us. Based on the weather, based on the wind and if we can get people and resources to fight this fire, and we’re stressed. I mean, Oregon is burning, Washington is burning, we’ve got 3 in Skamania County. Resources are thin.”
As the battle continues, the evacuees can only say thank you.
“I’ll tell you what, though,” Rodgers said. “The guys on the ground are the best.”