A Wildfire Safety Primer for the Columbia River GorgeJul 29, 2021 10:00AM ● By Bridge Of The Gods
Wildfires spread quickly and are driven by terrain, wind, and weather conditions.
Whether you live or work in
The Gorge or simply enjoy its scenery and activities as a visitor, wildfires
are a constant danger in the dry summer months. Preparation and knowledge may help save your home or your life.
- Nearly 90% of wildfires in the United States are human-caused.
- Know the level of fire danger in your area.
- Check conditions and restrictions before you enter wilderness or outdoor recreation areas. (See the resources list at the end of this article.)
- Think ahead about what you will do if you are caught in a wildfire while hiking or in the forest or mountains.
- Fire restrictions in some areas of The Gorge can start as early as May.
- What is your escape route? Whether you are a resident, visitor, or recreational participant, know your location and routes away should you have to evacuate on short notice.
- Have fire extinguishers on hand and train your family to use them (check expiration dates regularly.)
- Ensure that your family knows where your gas, electric, and water main shut-off controls are located and how to safely shut them down in an emergency.
- Have a portable radio or scanner so you can stay updated on the fire even if the power goes out.
- Learn about protecting your home with defensible space zones.
- Learn how to protect your lungs from wildfire smoke or ash.
- Back your car into the driveway with the front facing the street for a quick exit.
- If you leave in multiple cars, know where you plan to meet ahead of time.
- Keep a physical map in your car at all times. If hiking, keep one with you. Cell and satellite service may not be available during a fire. You can't depend on GPS.
- When hiking or recreating in potential fire zones, avoid synthetic materials. Aim to wear natural, fire-resistant materials.
- Know your potential exit routes.
- Find several ways to leave your area.
- Drive evacuation routes and find shelter locations.
- Have a smoke-filtering respirators on hand for each person. Few respirators will fit children.
- Gather face masks. Face masks for COVID may be helpful if the air is smoky and you don't have a respirator.
- Be ready to leave at a moment's notice.
- Pack an overnight bag with clothes and toiletries for several days.
- Remember to pack food, leashes, water, bowls, leashes, and containment for your pets.
- Put important documents like passports, insurance policies, medical information, legal papers, and inventories in a bank's safe deposit box, or in an envelope or fireproof storage box that you can grab if you must leave.
- Video or photograph everything in your house, garage, and outbuildings, so you have a record for insurance in case you need to make a claim. Be sure to document every wall, closet, cupboard, and hidden storage area.
- Use blue painter's tape to mark items you want to take if you must evacuate. It will make it easier to find them when you are in a high-stress mode with little time to act.
- If on evacuation notice, pay attention to fire conditions.
- Listen for emergency information and keep track of fire warnings and weather alerts.
- If in danger or on alert, confine pets and their carriers to one room so you can more easily gather them for transportation to safety. Alternately, arrange for them to stay with a friend or relative.
- In potential emergency conditions, move flammable furniture to the center of the home.
- If fire threat is imminent, remove flammable window coverings.
- During a fire emergency, close all doors and windows.
- Be prepared for fallen power lines and trees during evacuation.
- Pre-arrange to stay with family or friends if you need to leave; you can't count on the availability of hotel rooms.
- Create a team of family and friends who are willing to help you any time of the day or night.
- Build an emergency kit.
- Learn CPR and first aid.
- Sign up for emergency alerts. (See the resources list at the end of this article.)
- Make a family communication plan.
- Make an evacuation plan. Family evacuation plans should include helping young children and toddlers understand how to quickly respond in case of fire and how adults can escape with babies.
BE SAFE – take precautions.
- Do not start a campfire during fire season. One tiny ember can destroy a forest or grassland.
- If campfires are allowed, attend them at all times. Keep water and a shovel at hand.
- When leaving a campfire area, put the campfire dead out until it is cool to the touch.
- Build campfires only in designated locations or in cleared, open areas.
- Do not barbeque with open flame or briquettes or use home fire pits during burn bans.
- Never bring fireworks, including sparklers, into wilderness or hiking areas.
- Dispose of cigarette debris in an ashtray.
- Never throw a cigarette butt out of a car window or on the ground when hiking.
- Avoid driving and parking in tall grass or brushy areas. Hot exhaust pipes and catalytic converters can start fires.
TAKE ACTION – what to do if you are caught in a fire.
- If evacuating pets, leash them or put them in their carrier before you go outside. Pets can panic and run.
- Travel downhill. Fires tend to move more quickly uphill than downhill. If you are outside, don't be on a ridge if there is a wildfire below.
- If you are upwind from the fire, run into the wind. Do not travel into the flow of smoke.
- If you are downwind from the fire, run perpendicular to the wind; you can't outrun a fire.
- Head for places with little vegetation or that have already burned. Fires need fuel.
- Avoid canyons as they funnel heat.
- Avoid overhead branches. They can rain down cinders and may fall.
- Avoid wet clothing. High heat will turn water into steam and scald you.
- If you find a safe place, wait out the fire. Don't try to escape without knowing the conditions.
- If you are in a safe place, but there is smoke in the air, dig a hole large enough for your face, lie face down, feet towards the fire, and put your face inside the hole to reduce the chance of inhaling deadly gases.
- If caught in a grassland fire, try to clear as much area around you as possible.
Few will forget the Eagle Creek Fire started on September 2nd when a 15-year-old boy tossed fireworks into a canyon during a burn ban. The fire went on to burn for three months, charred nearly 50,000 acres, and leaped the Columbia River to ignite several spot fires in Skamania County. Much of the Eagle Creek trail and surrounding areas remained closed to public access for years. By the summer of 2021, not all areas were open. Recovery will take decades.
On the afternoon of July 29th, a lightning strike resulted in a blaze that scorched 11,000 acres in less than 24 hours. The fire, just east of Dallesport on the Washington side of the Columbia River, burned Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and private lands; threatened Wishram Heights, the Maryhill Winery, and the community of Maryhill. It stretched from Highway 97 east to the John Day Dam between State Highway 14 and the Columbia River. About 135 firefighters battled the flames, which blackened more than 14,000 acres before being contained.
Small fires were the norm for the year, but even small fires are costly and dangerous. In July, the Post Canyon fire, though small, destroyed Hood River Vineyards and Winery's winery structure. As of 2021, they had not reopened.
The Mosier Creek Fire destroyed 11 homes, two commercial buildings, and 18 outbuildings. It burned nearly a thousand acres. The blaze started on August 12th and required the efforts of 648 firefighters to contain it.
In June, a fire two miles northwest of The Dalles forced the evacuation of a mobile home park and closure of Interstate 84 as well as Highway 30. Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue and the US Forest Service were responsible for suppressing the outbreak.
By July, The Gorge had already seen several more small wildfires. Record-setting heat and lack of rain produced highly volatile conditions.
The Valley View or Sunset Valley Fire started in the afternoon on July 1st near The Dalles. Highway 197 was closed, and evacuations ordered. A barn, several outbuildings, vehicles, a portion of a cherry orchard, brush, and wheatland were all damaged.
Around 7:30 p.m. on July 12th, firefighters battling a wildfire near Lyle when they were alerted to power outages in Lyle and Appleton. A second fire, the Lyle Hill Fire, was being fanned by 30-mile-per-hour winds. One person had to be life-flighted for medical attention. Power outages caused Lyle fire hydrants to stop working, prompting crews to set up a boat ramp to fill tinders from the river. By Tuesday morning, the fire had burned 150 acres of mixed timber and grassland. Over 100 fire personnel, 19 engines, one dozer, two fixed-wing aircraft, and two helicopters were deployed to combat the wildfire. By July 16th, Be Ready evacuation orders were lifted.
The summer of 2021 promises to be a wildfire safety challenge. Be aware. Be prepared. Be safe.
General information and how-to
- Fire Safety Outreach Materials for People with Disabilities
- Learn how to protect your lungs from wildfire smoke or ash.
- Safety Messages For Pregnant, Postpartum, and Breastfeeding Women During Natural Disasters and Severe Weather
- Create a Clean Room to Protect Indoor Air Quality During a Wildfire
- How to Survive a Forest Fire While Hiking or Camping - nice infographic and tips
- How to React to Wildfires – from the Pacific Crest Trail Association
- Smoky Bear wildfire prevention, campfire safety, backyard burning, and home preparedness tips. Also has some fun activities for kids.
Alerts and emergency information
- Emergency Alerts
- Columbia River Gorge Wildfire Information excellent list of information and resources.
- Northwest Fire Locations – Northwest Interagency Coordination Center
- Fire Restrictions and Closures Oregon Department of Forestry
- Oregon State Parks posts safety, campfire, and open flame restriction, articles, and notices on their home page; scroll down to see them.
- Hood River County Fire Season information
- Hood River County Fire Departments
- Wasco County Fire Departments
- Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue Wasco County Fire District Map
- Troutdale Fire Department
- Opt-in Alert & Warning Notifications for counties in Washington
- Washington State Parks posts alerts, news, and announcements on their home page; scroll down to see them.
- Washington State Department of Ecology Burn Bans
- Fire Danger and Outdoor Burning Map Washington State Department of Natural Resources
- Klickitat County Burn Bans, Zones, and Notices
- Klickitat County Fire Departments
- Skamania County Fire Marshal – Burning Information
- Skamania County Fire Departments
- Camas-Washougal Fire Department
Eagle Creek Fire
How to Survive a Wildfire