‘Governor of the Gorge’: Life is still here

Corbett Fire Chief Dave Flood: 'Joe’s like a rock star up here'

Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Joe Graziano looks at the damage from the Eagle Creek Fire along Highway 30 in the Columbia River Gorge. (9/11/2017, KOIN)
Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Joe Graziano looks at the damage from the Eagle Creek Fire along Highway 30 in the Columbia River Gorge. (9/11/2017, KOIN)

CORBETT, Ore. (KOIN) — Deputy Joe Graziano was finishing up some paperwork when the Eagle Creek Fire made its impressive, wind-fueled, 12-mile run into Multnomah County.

“It happened right as I was getting ready to go off my shift,” Graziano said on Monday, as he toured the devastation. “So there was no question…it’s like: ‘No, we need to help.’”

Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Joe Graziano speaks with community members about the Eagle Creek Fire. (9/11/2017, KOIN)
Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Joe Graziano speaks with community members about the Eagle Creek Fire. (9/11/2017, KOIN)

The deputy, with nearly 25 years of service, topped off his tree-green colored patrol car, knowing he was in for a long night.

“The smoke was so thick that a lot of times you couldn’t even see the flames,” he recounted. “You knew there was a fire, but in some places you couldn’t tell exactly where it was.”

The Columbia River Gorge has been Graziano’s patrol area for the last 15 years.

“I know personally, I really have an attachment to this area,” he said.

He’s the kind of person who loves to be outside. He’s spent time in the sheriff’s office’s River Patrol unit. But there’s nothing like driving through the winding roads of the Gorge and having the world outside his patrol car.

“On a typical day on patrol, especially in the summer…we’ll get people from other countries with British accents, from Germany or people who really don’t even speak English – they’re not from here,” Graziano said.

He is, in some ways, an ambassador to the Gorge.

The people who call the Gorge home see Graziano as something much more than a public steward.

Corbett Fire Chief Dave Flood said, “Joe’s like a rock star up here.

Someone else called Graziano, “the Governor of the Gorge.”

Phil DuFresne, who runs Big Bear’s Market in Springdale, knows Graziano simply as “Rocky.”

The nickname has stuck with Graziano over the years, and it’s what most people call Graziano.

“He’s one in 10,000 police officers for the community,” DuFresne said. “He gets involved personally and he’s quite a guy.”

The compliments were shared over coffee at Big Bear’s Market. For the locals, it’s an oasis, a place to hang out. When Graziano walks in, he’s a deputy sheriff. The radio traffic from police dispatch seems to fade out, almost right on cue, as everyone greets him with a big smile and handshake.

Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Joe Graziano shakes a man's hand as they talk about life and the Eagle Creek Fire. (9/11/2017, KOIN)
Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Joe Graziano shakes a man’s hand as they talk about life and the Eagle Creek Fire. (9/11/2017, KOIN)

“He can’t have no peace and quiet when he comes here,” DuFresne said, laughing.

Graziano also laughed and simply said, “yeah” because he knows it’s true.

“Everyone want to tell him something,” DuFresne said. “Just like I did, you know.”

As Graziano hops back into his patrol car to head out east into the Columbia River Gorge to see the damage, he reflects on the friends he’s made out here.

“It’s the people that keeps me,” Rocky said. “You know, they’re people who I would actually consider a lot of them as friends.”

The proof of the Eagle Creek Fire is everywhere. The haze sinks into the hillsides, the smoke chokes out the sun and the Corbett Fire station has turned into a mini grocery store for firefighters from community donations.

The damage, though, sets in exceptionally once you get onto Highway 30 and start driving east past Latourell Falls. Patchy spots of hillside area burned.

“It’s pretty surreal and it’s sad,” Rocky said as he drove by.

Between Multnomah Falls and Horsetail Falls half of the roadway is covered with rock from a large slide.

“It just looks so different…It’s pretty amazing to see all of this happen instantly,” Graziano said.

The path of destruction continued to the Oneonta Tunnel.

“In the summer, there’d be dozens of people coming and going from this exact spot, taking pictures and hanging out,” Graziano said as he looked at the historic spot for the first time since it burned.

As Graziano stood along Highway 30, the sounds of falling rocks, trees and chain saws echoed throughout the Gorge. It gave Graziano time to think about the evacuations from Monday, September 4 and how lucky he was to have a team of volunteer citizen patrollers.

With such a huge patrol area, in the early 2000s Rocky knew he need more eyes and ears to help make his job easier. He was able to get the Multnomah County Citizen Patrol unit trained and up and running. Its members are people who live throughout the Gorge. They communicate using two-way radios.

Even as the fire spread towards the communities of Warrendale and Dodson many of the volunteers stayed on to help with evacuations, leaving their own families and homes behind.

Rocky stood with them as incident commanders called out more Level 3 evacuation orders.

“To see the fear in some of them, with tears in their eyes, as they’re packing up and grabbing their last minutes items…it was really hard emotionally.”

“This is a scary thing up here. Nobody’s ever had to deal with this,” one of the volunteer patrollers told KOIN 6 News.

On Monday, Rocky made it a mission to visit as many community events as possible.

He knows the roots of the Columbia River Gorge run deep inside the community and that those impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire are resilient.

“After the fires are out, the smoke clears, and the clean-up really starts, I think it’ll be another pretty place to visit again.”

“We still hear the birds,” he smiles. “Life’s still here. It’s not completely devastated by any means. There’s way more green than there are burnt places.”