Jim Aikman: Hey, Robbie. How's it going?
Robbie Dones: Going good.
Jim Aikman: Cool. Well, as much as anything, I just kind of want to turn it over to you and let you tell me what unfolded that day.
Robbie Dones: Oh, man. Thinking back on it, it's just interesting to have a little internal flashback right now. So, it was the first date, it was like the first time we went out, and hung out. Again, I'd only been in town for five days, so it was like kind of like a tour guide thing.
Robbie Dones: She offered to take us to the Falls. The pack job I actually did for that day was just like a six-pack of cider, a bottle of water, a bag of Trail Mix, and I think one of those inflatable couches you see at outdoor music festivals? I think I was wearing swim trunks, and like a tank top, hat and sunglasses. That was the equipment for everybody who was in the group.
Robbie Dones: And we were all kind of just not really thinking about what was going to transpire that day.
Robbie Dones: I mean, the whole Eagle Creek is this beautiful hike that I'd never been on before, and you see the water spilling into this giant pool, and it looks like something out of the movie of Avatar. it's a little unworldly. Especially for a kid from West Side, Chicago. All I'm used to is like skyscrapers.
Robbie Dones: We kind of shimmied down and jumped into the water, slid around, just kind of basking in the sun in a little beach area before everything kind of went to hell.
Robbie Dones: Some people were panicking, and people were pointing to the sky, and then all of a sudden you looked up and you realized there's this giant black and white smoke cloud going from the area that ... We needed to get to the parking lot. Then, rumors started popping up left and right over what was going on.
Robbie Dones: You started hearing like, “Oh, we can get out. No, we can't. Trail's closed off. Trail's open, we can make it.” And you'd just start hearing this game of telephone go on, and people's voices are getting raised, you know? And I think at that moment people started to get a little bit more panicky and not really sure of what was going on.
Robbie Dones: All of the smoke and fire, and the helicopters weren't improving the situation, and I thought, you know, like, “Hey, you're in the middle of this. You should figure out what's going on and see if you can make it a little bit better.”
Robbie Dones: I heard the fire before I saw it, because it was sucking in so much air, you could feel the air rushing into the fire, and you could feel the heat. It was like getting blasted in the face with a leaf blower that's on fire, it was crazy. When I turned the corner, the whole valley was on fire, which is ... I'd never seen anything like it, and it was just this pit of like red and black colors shooting up from the middle.
Robbie Dones: Trees were breaking and rolling down the hill, and the whole entire trail was like gone. You couldn't see more than five feet past the flames, and where the trail actually went. I don't know, it was like the world of Mordor or something like that had opened up in front of me, because it was just this huge wall of flame.
Robbie Dones: So, I was like, “Nope.” I knew that we only had like two options in that moment, was like, “Hey, you can either hunker down in the punch bowl, or you can hike your ass out of there, because there's no ... there's no going through it.” I was like, “This thing is going to ... If we stay here, we're going to die.”
[Breaking News Segments About Fire in Gorge]
Graham Z.: Welcome to Wildfire, a podcast about the high-profile Eagle Creek fire in 2017 that took place in the Columbia River Gorge outside of Portland, Oregon. And, how that fire relates to the past, present and future of wildfire in North America. I'm your host, Graham Zimmerman, and I'm joined by my co-host, Jim Aikman; and together, we're taking you on a journey through the fascinating story of this devastating fire, and extrapolating out from there to a broader conversation about this complex phenomenon.
Graham Z.: This is Episode 1: Trapped by Fire.
Graham Z.: Long before humans inhabited this planet, it experienced cataclysmic events that shaped the world that we now know, and which I think we would all agree, is a pretty remarkable place to call home. We call these events “natural disasters”. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and wildfire.
Graham Z.: The wildfire is a phenomenon well-known around the world, but particularly in the American West, where it is as much a part of the forest as the towering trees and the verdant understory. A wildfire is a violent force. Indeed, it is devastating to the status quo of whatever environment it enters.
Graham Z.: For a human to look upon such a formidable force of nature, it is sublime, and it is terrifying. Something so much bigger than us, and so much more powerful. A wildfire is explosive, trees will burst like bombs, and launch shrapnel for miles. It is fast and aggressive, capable of moving faster than 50 miles per hour, and jumping massive waterways to continue burning whatever fuel it can find.
Graham Z.: It is nebulous, often morphing and combining with other fires, like a metastatic cancer. It is a juggernaut, plowing down patches of forest, devouring trees that can be hundreds of years old, and wildlife that might have been napping in a glade on the hours before.
Graham Z.: It is loud, often compared to the sound and intensity of a jet engine, and most of all, it is hot, burning at temperatures upwards of 2,000 degrees. That is hot enough to liquefy glass and destroy any trace of whatever existed before it got there. Perhaps most frightening to humans, it doesn't care about what it destroys.
Graham Z.: Wildfires have a life of their own, but that life is not guided by any of the sympathies or beliefs that guide a human being. Instead, it destroys thoughtlessly, it exists on its own schedule, aided and abetted by the wind, and finally, only ever truly extinguished when the rains decide.
Graham Z.: To confront something so coldly objective in its motives is a frightening prospect. The point where wildfires become something different, something much more destructive to us humans, is when these fires meet civilization. They can decimate entire towns, as we've recently seen in California.
Graham Z.: They can rob hardworking people of their life's work, and most tragically, they do not bat an eye at consuming human life. When fires arrive at our doorstep to ravage our homes and our lives, it is a horrible tragedy, particularly when these fires are started by us and are not a part of the course of nature.
Graham Z.: And for all of these reasons, we have every right to be terrified of wildfire. Over the last 100 years in the United States, we have demonized wildfire and sought to control it. We've developed a complex system of management that tries to suppress fires, to preserve natural resources, scenic spaces, and of course, human civilization.
Graham Z.: But, this is not a black and white phenomenon, and cannot be understood without looking closely at the nuances that swirl and mutate as much as the fires themselves. So, here we are, creating a podcast to better understand the past, present, and future of wildfire on our planet.
Graham Z.: We're going to take you on a journey, looking at the natural forest habitats in which wildfires take place, how humans have interacted in the past, and worked to provide you with the information you need to understand how we can work better with these processes in the future.
Graham Z.: This journey will take us into the history books, into conversations with scientists, naturalists, firefighters, politicians, and into the story of a recent fire in the Pacific Northwest, the Eagle Creek fire outside of Portland, Oregon, in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge.
Graham Z.: You may have heard about this on the news. It is a story of both danger and heroism, one that provided twists and turns as the fire grew and endangered a large population center. It is also a fire that Jim and I experienced firsthand, and one that forever changed a place that we both loved.
Graham Z.: By unpacking this fire, its unique circumstances, and the many people affected by it, we hope to better understand this natural phenomenon, and just maybe, learn something about the best way to live in harmony with an immense and immovable part of the natural order.
Graham Z.: Our goal in this podcast is not to provide you with a way to think about forestry management or wildfire mitigation, rather, we want to turn you into a more informed member of the community, one that understands the background and role of fire in our natural spaces, so that we can be more safe, and so that we can be better stewards of our forests.
Graham Z.: Throughout the podcast, we are going to be guided by the story in Eagle Creek, and in each episode, we will look at a different element of wildfire. Leaning into our backgrounds, Jim and I will take on different subjects. Jim will focus on the human elements, on the story, while I will focus on policy and science.
Graham Z.: At the end of each episode, we'll come together to discuss what we have learned in order to create a deeper perspective on this important, challenging, beautiful, and devastating subject. And with that, I invite you to dive in with us, and welcome you to Wildfire.
Graham Z.: We're out here on the Angel's Rest Trail in the Columbia River Gorge. It's a gorgeous area, it's a gorgeous day, there are lots of people out here hiking.
Jim Aikman: Gorgeous, indeed.
Graham Z.: Gorgeous indeed. Lots of gorgeous people going for gorgeous hikes in a gorgeous place.
Jim Aikman: In the Gorge.
Graham Z.: In the Gorge.
Jim Aikman: Living in Portland, this is just right in our backyard. It's a place that when you have an afternoon to kill you come up here on Angel's Rest. This type of landscape was such a big reason for why I moved out here, you know, three and a half years ago.
Graham Z.: I think I drove out the Gorge when I was a kid, but I don't really remember it. I didn't really get reintroduced to Oregon in a big way until I started dating Shannon, who's now my wife, and she's from Oregon and ... And then, Jim, I mean, when you moved here, created even more [inaudible 00:11:52] to spend time over in Portland, in this area.
Jim Aikman: It looks different than the last time I was up here. Seeing a lot of these blackened trees. Almost feels like tombstones when you're up in these burned areas.
Graham Z.: I think for us to truly understand these forests, we need to understand their complexities and how dangerous they can be, and how that's an important part of how these forests operate and what that means, so ...
Jim Aikman: Yeah. We're really up here today to put our feet on the trail, put our eyes on the space, smell the smells, just really get ourselves reacquainted with the area before we're going to dive into unpacking this crazy phenomenon.
Graham Z.: I don't know, I'm pretty fired up about it.
Jim Aikman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Hi. Hi, there.
Graham Z.: Hey, guys. Just audio geeks out here in the woods.
Graham Z.: Back in Eagle Creek, the news of the fire had reached the local authorities.
Rebecca Gehrman: So, it was 4:30 in the afternoon, and we got a general dispatch, which is normal, so they toned us out for a fire alarm, and they said a possible forest fire, unknown acreage, it was at Eagle Creek. That kind of sent up some red flags, like, “This could be bad.”
Graham Z.: The voice that you're hearing is Rebecca Gehrman. She's a firefighter with the Cascade Lox Fire department and was one of the first responders to the fire.
Rebecca Gehrman: We got in our forestry rig and we headed in that direction and as we were getting there there was cars everywhere, and it was beautiful, so it's a typical busy day at Eagle Creek. Our goal was to go up and get the hikers out. That was our main initiative.
Rebecca Gehrman: We could smell it and I would say about a mile up the trail we could hear a little bit more of it. We passed hordes of people coming down. We met up with another U.S. Forest Service law enforcement gentleman and he told us, he was like, "We can't get through. It's jumped across the trail and there's no way we can get through. This is big. This is a big fire."
Rebecca Gehrman: We could hear the rocks giving way and it just sounded like a huge landslide. So we turned around. There was nothing we could do for anyone on the other side of the fire, the hikers that were on the other side. So we called in the forest service, Oregon Department of Forestry. We called in the whole calvary.
Rebecca Gehrman: By the time we got back, that's kind of when the awe struck. It was this huge plume, huge plume of smoke that I remember thinking to myself, "This is really bad. I don't know what we're going to do."
Graham Z.: So the question now is, where do we start with the story of wildfire and the Eagle Creek burn? It seems to me that it's easiest to start at the very beginning with the place, the forests. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, the forests that take up over 818 million acres, or just a third of the landmass of the United States were simply a fact of life. A place to play, a place to get scared, and a place to adventure.
Graham Z.: It was not until I traveled to parts of the world where there is not such an abundance of trees that I truly understood how exceptional these forests are. In Balitstan, in northern Pakistan, where I spend a lot of time Alpine climbing, the climate is generally arid or alpine. And trees exist as parts of small clumps of vegetation along the streams and rivers. I've had multiple occasions where friends there have asked me about the huge forests of America and how they can't believe that such a thing can be truth. Their visions of these massive forests are similar of how I thought of the Sahara growing up, an impossibly large geographical feature that is closer to the realm of a fairy tale than reality.
Graham Z.: But unlike the Sahara, which represented scarcity, the forests represent immense abundance. So for a better description of these forests, I sat down with my friend Bryce Kellogg. He works as a forest spatial analyst with the Nature Conservancy. Bryce has a pretty amazing appreciation of forests and the complexities. So as we started to dig into the subject of forests, and these forest fires, I had him start with a high level description of the forests that we have here in Oregon.
Bryce Kellogg: So I think that one interesting thing about Oregon and the really cool thing about the Pacific Northwest in general is just the diversity of forests that we have. We have the basically temperate rainforests in Northwest Oregon, and we go all the way to really dry fire adapted forests in northeastern Oregon, southwestern Oregon.
Graham Z.: As we talked about the forests, we started to narrow in on the Columbia River Gorge.
Bryce Kellogg: So I think that the interesting thing to me about the Columbia Gorge is that it's this channel through the Cascade range. It's low in elevation and goes on this east-west gradient. So it's kind of this place where the dry and the wet forests meet. And that, I think, makes it super interesting ecologically, because it has a lot of diversity. You go one direction and you're in a wet forest, you go in one direction you're in a dry forest. You go up a little bit, maybe you're in more of a wet forest. You go down a little bit you're in an oak savanna. That's kind of why the Columbia Gorge, besides it's amazing beauty, is identified as kind of a special place.
Graham Z.: A few days later I was driving along the Columbia River from Portland on my way home to bed. The approximately 90 mile gorge lay in front of me. It's beautiful steep, forest covered bluffs precipitously rolling down thousands of feet into the massive river that is at points miles wide and up to 4,000 feet deep. Through this area, the Columbia divides the border between Washington and Oregon as it splits the Cascade range.
Graham Z.: It is in fact the only place where the Cascade range that stretches from northern California to southern British Columbia is split at near sea level. I pulled off the I 84 and on to the historic Columbia River highway. This took me into the five mile stretch known as the Waterfall Corridor, one of the largest concentrations of waterfalls in North America.
Graham Z.: I slowed down as I drive past the Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Wahkeena Falls. Despite the fact that I needed to get home, I stopped at Multnomah Falls, taking a moment to crane my neck at the massive column of water plunging 620 feet through the air. Samuel Lancaster, who designated the historical Columbia River highway said of the gorge, "God shaped these mountains around us and lifted up these mighty domes. He fashioned the gorge of the Columbia, fixed the course of the broad river, and caused the crystal streams, both small and great to lead down from the crags and sing their never ending songs of joy."
Graham Z.: Later in 1938, Louis Mumford, an American historian, sociologist and philosopher visited the gorge as part of a regional tour arranged by the Washington State planning council. He was entranced, saying that, "The subtle and manifold beauties of the Columbia River Gorge unrolls itself, like some great Kakemono of classic Chinese landscape art."
Graham Z.: As I continued down the gorge, now back on I-84 I passed the 848 foot freestanding plug of basalt named beacon rock in 1805 by Lewis and Clark as they floated the Columbia out to the Pacific Ocean. It's not considered one of the classic rock climbing ares of the Pacific Northwest. As I traveled east, signs of recent fire grew more and more obvious as I approach Eagle Creek. It's a place that boasts dozens of spectacular waterfalls, towering basalt cliffs and until recently, held a lush temperate rainforest and was considered by many to be one of the most beautiful hiking destinations in all the northwest.
Graham Z.: Earlier in the episode we heard from Rebecca Gehrman, the firefighter in the small town of Cascade Locks, that sits right at the base of Eagle Creek.
Rebecca Gehrman: I was born and raised here. I've lived here for 29 years. Any time we go on vacation, you see Multnomah Falls and you go, "Ugh. I'm almost home."
Graham Z.: As she was coming back from her attempt to rescue the hikers, she found that the situation had escalated.
Rebecca Gehrman: Everything was just kind of a whirlwind. I was just trying to be as helpful as I could and trying to do logistics. We had hoards of people come, mutual aid, from across the river and from Portland area and the east. So we had all these people and we had to kind of orchestrate, "Okay you need to go here."
Graham Z.: But on that first day as she drove back to her home in Cascade Locks, she took a moment amongst the mayhem to pause.
Rebecca Gehrman: I stopped in the middle of the road because I could see the devastation. If it continued, would it be completely gone? Would all of this beauty be gone? I very much enjoy living here. I've lived other places but nowhere as satisfying as living here and it was devastating even imagining that it could be completely gone.
Graham Z.: The hikers though, were still stuck on the far side of the flames.
Rebecca Gehrman: I knew that at least a good majority of them weren't prepared for staying the night. It's the gorge, so it gets cold at night. I couldn't speak to the conditions of the fire versus where they were at, but at least the conditions of their situation, that would be where myself as a paramedic would be concerned.
Graham Z.: And with that, Jim's going to take us back to Eagle Creek, and back up to those trapped hikers.
Jim Aikman: Hey Robbie, can you hear me?
Robbie Dones: Jim, how's it going?
Jim Aikman: How's it going?
Robbie Dones: Going good. How [crosstalk 00:22:43]
Jim Aikman: When news broke about the fire and the 150 hikers that were trapped above the blaze, there were reports that someone with military experience was among the group.
Speaker 5: Those 140 people are safe tonight at Tunnel Creek Falls. We're at the Eagle Creek recreation area site, where ash is falling all around us now, that fire burning behind me on the ridge. Now the people that have to hunker down for the night and stay the night, they were hiking at the popular Lower Punchbowl Falls when they got trapped, essentially between two fires, the Indian Creek fire that started on July 4th, and the new Eagle Creek fire. Now there may be some comfort to loved ones, friends and family that there are some paramedics among that 140 ...
Jim Aikman: This was a comforting development for those following along, to know that there was potentially at least one cool head in the mix.
Jim Aikman: So I guess to start, where am I calling you today?
Robbie Dones: I'm in Qatar in the Middle East right now, serving with the 379th emergency medical deployment squadron. I've been with the military for ... man, 10 years. [crosstalk 00:23:47]
Jim Aikman: You heard from Robbie Dones at the top of the episode. He had just moved to Portland from the Midwest and was on a first date in the gorge.
Jim Aikman: It's just a lot of serendipity that you would even be there on that day, huh?
Robbie Dones: Absolutely. Looking back at it, I'm wilded out that we got into the situation that we did. Everything kind of coalesced at the same time to make it like a perfect storm, if you will, for what happened to us.
Jim Aikman: After Robbie saw the fire for himself, just around the corner from the Punchbowl, panic began to creep up the spines of all 150 stranded hikers. Robbie stepped onto the largest boulder he could find to address the group and got everyone moving.
Robbie Dones: That's when it kind of clicked that, "Okay. There's a lot of scared people in here who have almost no experience dealing with chaotic situations."
Jim Aikman: Life and death.
Robbie Dones: Life and death situations. I mean I didn't want to make anyone panic, but I've worked in combat trauma surgery before. You know, I've been deployed a few times and done ... I've been in some hairy surgeries where you need to keep your head about you to make sure that you're doing the best job you can. If you panic, you're going to make things worse. I didn't really leave it up for debate, I kind of just told them, "Hey this is what we're going to do. We're all going to walk out of here together in one big happy family and we're going to make it. It's going to be fine. This will all be an evening news story that you can tell your grandkids about. It'll be great."
Robbie Dones: A few of the people who kind of raised their hands like, "Hey if you need anybody, I'm a detective. I'm a ER nurse. I'm a vet tech. I can help you with anything you need." And that's when I think the team mentality kind of kicked in and everyone kind of started relying on each other and helping each other out. Because I think they all realized that, hey, we're all in this together and we need to hike out of here and get out of here together.
Jim Aikman: As if the stakes weren't already high enough, the other thing that's important to know about this situation is that there was another fire burning on the other side of the Eagle Creek valley. The Indian Creek fire. So the hikers were essentially trapped between two very serious wildfires, between a veritable rock and a hard place.
Jim Aikman: So in those moments, I mean you relied on your training to kind of stay positive and try to keep everyone's morale up. But did the thought occur to you that you were sandwiched between these two aggressive, fast moving fires, and that it could end really badly?
Robbie Dones: You know when you say it like that, man it sounds scary. Shit.
Robbie Dones: (singing)
Speaker 13: It's hard to wrap your head around this. Again, really hard to find the words to describe this. We're talking about this luscious pristine green gorge now turning orange and red, billowing black smoke, likely when the sun comes up tomorrow, so much of this will be blackened.
Jim Aikman: As the hikers moved up the valley, away from the Eagle Creek fire and towards the Indian Creek fire, everyone worked together in a way that really demonstrates the profound humanity of this story. People shared what scarce food and water they had as barefoot members serenaded with guitars and didgeridoos. As they marched uphill, morale was relatively high, partly due to Robbie's leadership, but I have to imagine it also had to do with their environment. At moments it must have felt like they were just out in the forest, hiking in their beloved Columbia River Gorge with a great group of friends on a beautiful day. Even in the face of this formidable life threatening situation, a love for the gorge overcame fear.
Jim Aikman: And this is what I wanted to explore for our first episode. Our shared love for this amazing place, which Graham has described in all its unique ecological, geological glory, clearly identifying it as a special place from the scientific standpoint, but what about ideologically? Philosophically? What does this place mean to the people of Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest. Surely it means more than just the sum of it's many beautiful parts. It has become abundantly clear to me that the Columbia River Gorge is more than just a place to all of these people. It is an idea, a loved one, a sanctuary, a paradise.
Jim Aikman: To look deeper into this area's relationship to the Gorge, I turned to Portland metro park ranger, Jim Caudell
Jim Caudell: My name's Jim Caudell. I'm a third generation Oregonian, raised up on the slopes of Mount Hood.
Jim Aikman: Jim works in the park system at the mouth of the gorge, between the fire and the city of Portland, and sees everyday how much people love this area. But Jim has a surprising background.
Jim Caudell: I lived nextdoor to my grandparents and aunt and uncle and we all had a logging company, Caudell and Son's Logging. So I always had this deep connection to logging because it was a deep connection to my family, what my family did. But I always ... I also hiked. I backpacked a lot. I spent a lot of time outside. So I could see both sides. We were out [crosstalk 00:29:08]
Jim Aikman: Growing up in a logging family, Jim had a very different perspective on the forest and we'll get back to that later in the series. But Jim's love of the outdoors led him to eventually work with the landscape in a very different way.
Jim Caudell: One winter when we were shut down, I was able to get a job for metro regional government and one thing led to another, and that's been 26 years ago and now I've been a park ranger for metro for 20 years. I know that people have that strong connection with the river and the gorge and what goes on that not everybody can see.
Jim Aikman: Working as a metro park ranger, Jim has his finger on the pulse of the gorge. He even lives on a houseboat parked on the shore of the Columbia River, literally plugged into the tidal waters of this massive waterway that flows past Portland.
Jim Aikman: You know Portland, at least in my mind is this very unique city, because of its arrangement with this amazing landscape, with the mountain and the river and being close to the coast and all these amazing forests and rainforests. And then we've got the Columbia River Gorge right there. So we have this just wealth of natural riches around us that we get to enjoy, and really comes to define what this city is. Growing up here and living in the woods and being so close to nature in that way, do you feel that connection as a Portland resident?
Jim Caudell: Oh absolutely. I also believe that it's a city that cherishes its outdoors and we go there to nurture our souls. So I believe for a lot of Portlanders, those places are compass points of tradition, it connects us in so many different ways. It's a place for people of all ages. You can sit on a rock wall at the bottom of Multnomah Falls and just imagine what all ... where it's coming from, imagine the volume of water or meditate on it. You could travel all over the world and not be in a place that is as beautiful as the Columbia Gorge.
Jim Caudell: Anybody that asks, "Where should I go?" I always say you go to the Columbia Gorge first, even just to drive through, to experience it. And you know, drive along the old highway, the old waterfalls and you know ... It's a little bit of every place in the world. It looks like Norway sometimes, it looks like Ireland and Scotland. It's the trees. It's the water. It's driving along the Columbia Gorge and seeing it flat as glass, or driving along the Columbia Gorge and seeing it whipped up like the ocean. It's the steep trails. Angel's Rest is ... You can hike all around the world and not experience something that is as glorious as getting to the top and seeing it all spread out in front of you.
Jim Caudell: The Eagle Creek hike is like ... you won't find that in the most beautiful places in the world. That fire started in the heart, in the real heart of the gorge.
Jim Aikman: That's just such a special place.
Jim Caudell: Yeah. Very.
Jim Caudell: (singing)
Jim Aikman: In all of my conversations, it's been abundantly clear how meaningful this place is. Next, I moved 10 miles deeper into the gorge to talk with Rooster Rock state park ranger, Clay Courtwright.
Clay C.: I love parks, and the Gorge is a special place. It's 22 state parks from Government Island, just across Portland Airport there in the Columbia River, all the way to Cascade Locks. So Vista House, Bridal Veil Falls, Lateral Falls are some of the limelight parks in the unit.
Jim Aikman: Clay is on the front lines of managing the use of the parks in the Columbia River Gorge, and knows better than anybody how beloved this area is by throngs of local visitors and tourists from around the world.
Clay C.: We get a lot of trail use. Angel's Rest is pretty popular, Lateral Falls and Upper Falls Loop and Bridal Veil Falls and really the whole Waterfall Corridor is really popular for hiking. So it's a beautiful place. There's an opportunity to connect with nature on a lot of different levels, whether you've got just a couple hours, you want to get out on a trail real quick and go for a brief walk, clear your head, go look at the waterfalls and enjoy nature, or whether you're wanting to run seven miles up Angel's Rest, or whether you're wanting to fly in from out of the area and see the gorge for the first time.
Clay C.: A lot of fishing occurs seasonally on the river, and then of course when it gets hot in the city, folks just want to come dip their lawn chair in the river and enjoy and kind of relax. There's a disc golf course, there is rock climbing at Broughton's Bluff at Lewis and Clark. Kind of a pretty wide mixture of activities for folks to come and enjoy, which is good. Folks are loving parks, they're loving the outdoors and getting on and connecting with nature, which is what we're all about. But the numbers of visitation are up.
Jim Aikman: With opportunities like this, it's no surprise that people come in large numbers to visit the Columbia River Gorge.
Clay C.: The 20 plus park properties here, we receive about four million visitors a year, so Vista House alone gets a lot of visitation. Like in the millions. The access from Portland and the airport provides international visitors an opportunity to see a beautiful area in Oregon. It's a lot of visitation. Portland is growing and the state population is growing, so we're doing our best to address those increasing uses and we're still welcoming folks to the gorge and we always will.
Jim Aikman: I certainly appreciate these spaces and the management of them is so critical. I think it's something a lot of people overlook. It's ... I mean it's easy to think of a natural space. You think that it's maybe something that isn't being kept up. But it's so important to have these rules and boundaries and this kind of foundation in place to make sure that it's available to us.
Clay C.: Absolutely. Jim, absolutely. And we've got a good team here. We're pretty fortunate. All of our team is very passionate about what they do. So it's important to be respectful when recreating. That respectful recreation piece is key. Whether you're on a horse or a bike or on foot, yielding to folks and just being polite on the trails, pack it in, pack it out, leave no trace, that respectful and responsible recreation is important, because it is a busy area and it is heavily used. So it's important and you're not only ... We're here for a certain amount of time, but kids are coming in the next generation and grandkids, so it's important that we take care of things. Be respectful of the past but also be mindful of the future too. So that balance, and I think that's a good way to look at it.
Jim Aikman: Meeting the great people within the parks system was a real treat, and wonderful to connect on a shared appreciation for the outdoors. I felt a great sense of gratitude for what they do to keep these places available to us, but hearing about the multitudes of use within the gorge, it's not difficult to imagine the other side of the equation, where this beautiful place gets loved to death.
Jim Aikman: Back in Eagle Creek Robbie and the 149 other hikers made their way up the valley, navigating trail closures and difficult terrain to reach an extraction point. But they had a long way to go, and with nightfall approaching, they were more aware than ever of dropping temperatures and dwindling supplies.
Robbie Dones: For the next, I think it was 10 hours, we didn't have any contact with anybody. The girls from ... I think it's OSU ... were there in flip flops and bikinis. There was one diabetic person, one guy with two total knee replacements, one lady who had asthma. Two kids, one was like three and one was 10. And these two dogs. I asked them at the front, I'm like, "Listen, you know we have one way to go." I talked to one of the girls who hiked the trail before. She was like, "It's a straight shot to Waltham Lake, we can't miss it." Okay. That was our destination, Waltham Lake." Like, "Aaron, you have a GPS, just keep moving, keep everyone moving, just keep a good pace to where we're not getting separated and do your thing."
Robbie Dones: So in-between I'm walking up and down from the back all the way to the front making sure everyone is good. Anyways I'm walking up and down, everyone is sharing everything. All the water is getting shared. The PCT guy was taking out his hiking poles and giving them to the people who were having a little bit more trouble negotiating the terrain. Every hour we got further and further into the darkness, panic kind of crept up occasionally on people as we went. All of a sudden you're just marching away from this one giant glowing skyline behind you and then all of a sudden you start marching forward, and there's another glowing skyline ahead of you.
Robbie Dones: You're like, "Well are we going towards things that are worse for us or are we actually going to make it out of here?" And that's when I think a few people ... morale started to break down a little bit and I had to work a extra hard to make sure everyone was rallied and ready to go and kept pushing.
Robbie Dones: It's a little difficult to navigate that trail in the darkness. We had just passed Tunnel Falls, which if you ever do at night, is one of the eeriest, creepiest places you can go to. Because it's like this beautiful, the light bounces off the falls, but then it just drops into this black abyss. And it's a pretty big drop so everything's wet, everything's dark and everyone is holding on to the side railing for dear life. We didn't stop that whole life until we were clear. We hiked until I think it was 2:00/3:00 AM. I don't think we started until 4:00 PM
Jim Aikman: Remarkably, as the situation got more dire for the hikers, they became more and more eager to help one another, getting through the experience as a group. At no point did anyone act out of self-interest. Survival instincts were not limited to the individual but expanded to cover the broader sense of their community. And no one was more aware of that than Robbie.
Robbie Dones: So the walk up there, and especially the night, people were breaking down here and there. People were upset, people were scared. But the sharing of supplies stuff was one of the best things about ... I guess the takeaway from the whole experience is that all these people, they started to rely on each other and be really, really friendly and open with all that they had. It was great to watch. All these people who had nothing, had never talked to each other at all, or would in all instances never had any interaction with each other, all of a sudden just bending over backwards to make sure that everyone was going to be okay.
Jim Aikman: Around 2:00 in the morning, after hiking all day and night, the group finally stopped for some rest. But sleep would be hard to find, as temperatures had dropped, and the exposure was real.
Robbie Dones: When it got cold and the temperature started dropping, we ended up finding enough clothes for the bikini girls to get dressed and comfortable and warm, and then we found a tent, and someone had an extra bag. Ended up basically parting everything out we could and getting as many people covered and warm as we could. So people were cuddled up under beach towels and in big groups. That was when my inflatable party couch finally became useful, was for them two. Because they were laying down, so she says, "Oh mom I'm cold." And she says it in the most heartbreaking child voice you've ever heard in your life.
Robbie Dones: I'm like, "Oh my God." My heart shatters. So I'm like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I have a solution to this problem." So I pulled out the trusty inflatable party couch and ran around the campsite. We were all kind of settled in ... looked like an idiot for five seconds while I inflated it. Rolled it up and they got the best sleep out of all of us, I think.
Jim Aikman: So the real lesson here is that inflatable party couch is the most essential piece of survival gear we can bring with us.
Graham Z.: Talking to folks in Portland and around Washington that really share a love for this area, it's just become right, really clear how special it is. I think the most interesting part is this sense of almost conflict.
Graham Z.: We have a natural space that has existed for a long time, and then we have this encroachment of modern civilization on that space. One of our goals in this podcast is to better understand that point of conflict, and in our own small ways create some kumbaya.
Jim Aikman: What we're seeing is sort of this perfect little microcosmic anecdote of that conversation here. The goal here I think, is really to reconcile those two very different kind of goals within this one space. That's the conversation we're going to be trying to unravel here in the podcast.
Graham Z.: So that we can, you know, hopefully provide more food for thought on the subject of wildfire in North America.
Male: Now that we've made our way around the gorge, exploring the hikes, talking to naturalists, locals and rangers who work most closely with the terrain, we're better prepared to move forward in our investigation. A pleasant side effect is that we also feel a greater intimacy with it. This will hopefully be a relationship that only continues to bloom over the course of the podcast.
Male: In the next episode we'll be taking a look at the natural place that wildfire has within landscapes like the gorge, what is fire's natural role in the environment, and how have communities in the past, such as indigenous communities, learned to live with it?
Male: On top of that, the story of the Eagle Creek fire will broaden to encompass the overall response and initial impacts of this so-called natural disaster.
Male: But first, let's check back in with the intrepid hikers, slowly making their way on their final push to safety.
Robbie Dones: After taking that like, one hour snooze ... Which I don't think anyone got any sleep. Then it just turned to a physical exertion to get us out of there. There was another, I think, like six miles to the end of the trail, and it was mostly uphill. All of it was uphill I think. The most concerning thing in the morning was the smoke inhalation, because we had already been in the fire area since ... at least 12 hours. Like 14 hours. Then all the cold air had dropped all the smoke down to the valley floor. It took a toll on a lot of the hikers, because on the way out a few of the people were having a lot of trouble towards the end.
Jim Aikman: One by one, each member of the party made step by exhaustive step towards salvation, towards the rescue crews and family members waiting at the Waltham Lake parking lot. One woman fainted in the final mile and had to be carried out by a rescue worker. But finally, they had all arrived back on level ground, greeted by family and friends with food and water.
Robbie Dones: Then when you finally got that last step up, the relief was palpable. It was just like instantaneous. It's just like all the tension for the last like 16-24, I don't know how many hours, just kind of washed off your shoulders.
Jim Aikman: But the last person off the trail, making sure that everyone was safe and accounted for was Robbie.
Robbie Dones: I was one of the last people to see Tunnel Falls and the Punchbowl before it burnt down. That was one of the surreal moments about that hike, is that ... you know, I'm not sure when the last fire that was there was. But I know it's been a while and I know that Oregon, especially, holds almost a sacredness to that area, Columbia River Gorge, because of its beauty and close proximity to the city. I don't know. It's fantastic, and that's one of the things that whenever I think about that moment I always think about how lucky ... I'm not sure if lucky is the right word to use but how interesting it is that the last people to view that area before the fire that engulfed it was a bunch of jokers who were just there for a random day hike.
[Breaking News about the hikers returning to safety]
Graham Z.: Its truly inspiring to hear how such a terrifying experience has actually led to a lot of positive memories for the people involved. Silver linings of camaraderie and friendship that emerged from the experience. Robbie stays in touch with some of the other hikers from that day, recently speeding a Thanksgiving with one of their families.
Graham Z.: But the news to follow their heroic return would not continue to be so positive. The blaze in Eagle Creek was only getting started, and as the stranded hikers arrived back to safety, to the relief of listeners around the country, another bombshell landed in the headlines.
Robbie Dones: When we finally sat down on the couch, and I think Monday or Tuesday turned the TV on and heard about what had happened with ... who had started the fire, there was a whole range of emotions that came with that first understanding.
Speaker 3: Police confirm this fire likely began with fireworks. A suspect has been identified but not yet named.
Newscaster 1: Oregon State Police confirm they do know who is responsible for starting this fire.
Newscaster 2: Again, police have not identified the suspect by name, but are confirming this 3,000 acre fire as it stands now, was likely man-made.
Graham Z.: Wildfire is a production of REI, Bedrock Filmworks, and Pod Peak, and part of the REI Podcast Network. The podcast was written by Jim Aikman and myself, Graham Zimmerman and it was produced by the two of us, alongside Chelsea Davis, and our editor and audio wizard, Evan Phillips.
Graham Z.: Wildfire is a weekly podcast presented by REI.