Eagle Creek Fire charges? It’s ‘a lot of politics’

"The fire is still burning. We don't know how much will be burned"

The popular and heavily used Oneonta Trail was heavily damaged by the Eagle Creek Fire and is one of many Gorge spots that will remain closed possibly as long as through 2018. (Josh Kulla/Gresham Outlook)
The popular and heavily used Oneonta Trail was heavily damaged by the Eagle Creek Fire and is one of many Gorge spots that will remain closed possibly as long as through 2018. (Josh Kulla/Gresham Outlook)

TROUTDALE, Ore. (GRESHAM OUTLOOK) — Why haven’t authorities charged anyone in connection with the Eagle Creek Fire?

Charred timbers show the damage inflicted on the historic Oneonta Tunnel in the Columbia River Gorge. The tunnel was reframed relatively recently, though construction of the passage dates back to 1915. (Josh Kulla/Gresham Outlook)

“There’s a lot of politics involved,” explained Sgt. Steve Dangler with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office on Friday, Oct. 6.

“And the fire is still burning. We don’t know how much will be burned.”

It’s been more than a month since the Eagle Creek Fire was sparked and the Oregon State Police launched an exhaustive investigation. Authorities say the case will be handed over to prosecutors in Hood River County whenever state troopers finish their work.

When pressed, Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday, Sept. 5 told reporters in Troutdale she hoped that any suspects would “be held fully accountable for what has happened.”

In the meantime, police haven’t been shy when it comes to citing trespassers who enter closed recreation areas like Multnomah Falls or Ainsworth State Park.

More than a dozen fines have already been imposed, notes U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Rachel Pawlitz. Foresters and police made more than 150 contacts just on the weekend beginning Sept. 30.

“It doesn’t sound so large if you assume it’s people who made an honest mistake,” Pawlitz said. “But we’re not going to hesitate to hand those (citations) out if people need pushback.”

Thrill seekers and curious wanderers may not care if they put themselves in danger of rockslides and toppling trees, but those in charge don’t want their personnel and volunteer rescuers exposed to those hazards if it can be avoided.

There’s also the chance of flash floods as new debris creates natural dams that can suddenly give way.

While the idea of a ‘killer tree’ may sound hyperbolic, authorities say the risk of toppling timber and unpredictable debris slides is real. (Josh Kulla/Gresham Outlook)

One of the wildfire’s biggest impacts is on the mossy mix of soil, pine needles and decaying vegetative matter known as duff. That blend coats the forest floor and stabilizes trees and piles of rock called scree or talus slopes — until it’s burned off by flames, at least.

“That duff provides a layer to protect from rainfall impact,” describes Portland soil scientist Cara Farr. “(When rain falls), you’re dislodging your soil particles to the point where they can move down slope.”

The risk of debris slides has also increased around the Multnomah Falls Lodge, to the point where authorities are considering installing a containment fence around the building to protect it from rocks.

The Eagle Creek Fire destroyed the wooden Shady Creek footbridge that leads up to the iconic Benson Bridge. The Benson Bridge, made of concrete, has been immortalized in millions of selfies snapped at Multnomah Falls.

Ironically, the aging Shady Creek span was already scheduled to be replaced by a contractor in September, though that work has been pushed back by the fire.

“Obviously, there’s been the joke that the demo part of that project is now done,” Pawlitz said.

While the Eagle Creek Fire has largely been depicted as a disaster in the area media, it may have silver lining for local fish.

Falling trees and sliding stones create new eddies and pools in streams, and chinook, coho and steelhead species need that complexity to thrive, said fisheries biologist J.D. Jones. The only downside is that the increased sediment can muddy the water.

“After the fire, after the floods, we’ll have nice habitat (for fish) for years to come,” Jones added. “It’s a typical thing that they aren’t affected at all.”

American Indians have already returned to the 14-acre Wyeth Fishing Site west of Cascade Locks.

Standing on the Oneonta Bridge, which was built in 1915, Pawlitz offered some words of hope to reporters gathered for a press conference.

“There’s a good chance this all will be green sooner than you think,” she said.

The Gresham Outlook is a KOIN media partner.