Oregon's Columbia Gorge

Caution tape serves as a warning to visitors to Multnomah Falls east of Troutdale after the Eagle Creek Fire burned through the area leaving damaged trees and unstable rock formations in its wake.


Assuming the charges are true, a certain 15-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, is about to get a crash course in how much it costs to fight a wildfire.

Oregon State Police say the boy, who was not identified, is a suspect in starting a fire by the Eagle Creek Trail along the Columbia River Gorge. Authorities said the boy and his friends were using fireworks. We're heard reports that there's video of the incident; but seeing how it supposedly involves teenage boys doing something stupid, we'd be astonished if there wasn't video.

So this Eagle Creek fire blew up virtually overnight into a blaze that forced hundreds of home evacuations and scattered ashes throughout the region. The fire closed a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 84 because of thick smoke and falling ash and because the fire was burning next to the freeway in some spots.

You might think that, well, the interstate probably would make for a pretty solid fire break, but think again. This is a fire that jumped the Columbia River and started wildfires burning on the Washington state side of the gorge. (Well, to be perfectly accurate, embers from the fire drifted across the river and started fires on the other side, but that's still impressive.)

In short, this juvenile may have an interesting response when the school assignment comes to write an essay about what he did this summer.

We assume that you are not planning to head into our bone-dry forests anytime soon to set off Roman candles. But as we head into the last few weeks of what has been yet another brutal season for wildfires in Oregon and the West, this reminder is still worth keeping in mind: The condition of our forests is such that there is no margin for error whatsoever with fire.

Most of the biggest fires in Oregon this year have been sparked by lightning strikes, with a pair of notable exceptions. So forecasts this week that include the possibility of lightning storms have firefighters hoping that the storms bring rain as well.

But if you dig a little deeper into the numbers so that they include some of the smaller fires that have been burning this year on land protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry, a different story emerges.

As of last week, so far this year the department had tracked 819 such fires. Of that total, 610 of them — roughly three-quarters — have been caused by humans. 

Now, these fires tracked by the state tend to be smaller. In fact, the average size of these state fires is just under 6 acres. The state's largest fires are considerably bigger. The Eagle Creek fire along the gorge was about 33,600 acres this past weekend (and officials say it won't be contained until the end of the month). The state's biggest blaze, the massive Chetco Bar fire, clocks in at around 180,000 acres. (For purposes of comparison, the city of Corvallis has about 9,000 acres.)

The point here is that each of those massive fires started as a tiny spark. And the majority of all of Oregon's fires started from some sort of careless human action. It doesn't have to be something as blatant and foolish as tossing fireworks into tinder-dry brush. It can be something as simple as sparks being created when a lawnmower blade hits a rock or allowing your vehicle to idle in a field of dry grass.

And being extra careful when outdoors isn't just the right thing to do; it's fiscally prudent as well. If you're responsible for starting a fire, you may be held liable for the costs of fighting that fire. And that's not cheap, as a certain teenager from Washington may be just about to find out.

Published Sept. 6 in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.


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