Shelley James: My name is Shelley James. I own Cascade Locks Ale House. First picture on my phone of the fire is September 4 at 4:40 p.m. and that was when we could see the smoke plume come over the mountain. We had a restaurant full of people. It was Labor Day weekend. And I’d gone inside and I told all of my staff, I said, “Hey, here’s the deal. The fire’s spreading really, really quickly because I can see it starting to move,” I said, “once it peaks that crest up there, we’re outta here. Everyone’s outta here and I don’t care what the place looks like, get your crap and go home.” I told even customers like, “You don’t even have to pay your bill. If I say go, just go.” And then I do know that the fire chief she had ordered three pizzas, she came in to pick them up and said, “Hey, I gotta run like we’re on our way to this fire and I forgot my wallet.” And I was like, “Save the town and the pizza’s yours for free, my friend. Get out of here.”
Graham Z: At that point did you have any idea where this was headed?
Shelley James: I thought it was just headed straight for disaster, honestly. It’s been at that point five or six years of blood, sweat, and tears but, yeah, I didn’t think Cascade Locks would pull through, truthfully, yeah. It was scary. I called my husband and said, “I’m sitting in the truck drinking beer.” He said, “You’re insane. Come home.” I said, “Nope, watching it burn down.” I stayed there the whole night. Cops came, flashed their flashlight, said, “Excuse me, ma’am, we need to tell you to evacuate.” And I looked up and it was actually a kid I went to high school with. I told him to shut the hell up and get off my property. And he was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m watching it go, Josh. I got to watch it go.”
Graham Z: Welcome back to Wild Fire, 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 this fire relates to the past, present, and future of wild fire 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 to the broader conversation about this complex phenomenon.
Graham Z: In the last episode, we introduced you to the Columbia River Gorge which carves out much of the border between Oregon and Washington state. The gorge was the location of the Eagle Creek fire and a place that Jim and I both treasure. We heard from park rangers, scientists, and locals about the areas outstanding natural beauty as well as its many uses including both recreational and industrial, not to mention the small towns that call the gorge home. We also traced the initial hours of the Indian Creek fire, the 150 hikers trapped overnight, and we ended with what we felt was a real bombshell that the fire was in fact manmade.
Graham Z: The day after the fire started all 150 hikers emerged triumphantly from the forest a little worse for wear. One hiker was taken to the hospital but overall healthy and okay. Everyone returned to the comfort of their homes and there they heard a headline that was probably hard for them to even believe.
Robbie Dones: When we finally got back to our apartment, my roommate was like, “Oh, I told them where you were going,” but I don’t think he knew I was involved in the fire until we got back on Sunday.
Graham Z: That’s Robbie Dones, the soldier from Episode 1, that led the group of hikers out safely.
Robbie Dones: And he was like, “Oh shit. That was you guys?” When we finally sat down on the couch and I think Monday or Tuesday turned the TV on and heard about what had happened, who started the fire. There was like a whole wave of emotions that came along with that first understanding.
Graham Z: One of the boys in the crowd tossed what looked like a smoke bomb into the canyon below.
Graham Z: Soon after the fire in Eagle Creek began on the afternoon of September 2, police pulled over a minivan near the Eagle Creek parking lot. The windows were deeply tinted but witnesses saw the obscure silhouettes of five or six young people who slowly shuffled out of the vehicle for questioning. Onlookers took videos on their phones of a group of kids as their parents showed up and police took turns speaking to everybody but nothing was conclusive and the shocking details would be slow to trickle out through the news.
Shelley James: I want to say that somebody told me that afternoon or the next morning that it was started by a firework. I didn’t know it was, I think it was just a smoke bomb, right? Yeah. I mean, I didn’t know that but I knew it was a teenager with a firework, I want to say pretty early.
Graham Z: Labor Day, teenagers, smoke bombs, a massive wildfire a mile from a town of more than a thousand people. Clouded by the suffocating smoke of this explosive scenario, it was hard to be sure at first what had happened and how this could’ve happened. Those details wouldn’t become totally clear for a while until the proverbial smoke had cleared but for the people in the Columbia River Gorge, one thing was for sure, somebody was going to have to pay.
Graham Z: We’ve all heard a lot about the negative impacts that fires have on infrastructure and human lives. If there has been any kind of consensus, it is that wild fires are a serious threat and we’re seeing that play out firsthand in the Columbia River Gorge. But for Jim and me, it feels like there could be a lot of nuance under the surface that needs to be unpacked. As with all issues of this magnitude, it comes down to optics. As we saw in the Columbia River Gorge, wild fires certainly pose a very real threat to mankind’s institutions but what if we look beyond those optics? What if we kick ourselves out of the equation? What if we consider the natural landscape uninhabited by people where battles are not fought by us to contain and control something that has existed so much longer than us and will continue long after we are gone?
Graham Z: So in this episode, we’ll be asking the question, “Are wild fires a natural phenomenon? And is this phenomenon as much a part of the machinery of our planet as the changing tides and cyclical seasons? And if so, how do we reconcile that natural and perhaps essential part of nature’s protocol with the needs of civilization?” These are not easy questions to answer and Jim and I are certainly not the ones to provide all those answers. But as we turn our curiosity to the matter and pose these questions to the real experts, perhaps we can shed some light on the issue. So for this episode, we look to the past, stepping back to learn about nature in the Columbia River Gorge. What formed it over the millennia? And subsequently, how did humans coexist with the land before the advent of modern wild fire suppression? What role has fire played in shaping the gorge? And we’ll visit with the indigenous communities that moved into the area more than 12 thousand years ago and still thrive to this day.
Graham Z: With eager ears and open minds, we’ll be looking at all this history for wisdom. And I suspect that we might just find some solutions, waiting patiently amongst the ancient trees.
Graham Z: On the night of September 2, 2017, when the hikers trapped behind the flames were on their way to safety, Jessica Bennett, the fire captain at Cascade Locks fire station was not too concerned.
Jessica Bennett: About 11:00 that night, I left Eagle Creek. Fires don’t generally be very active at night and so we kind of we were watching it, it was about 300 acres at that point. So we’re like, “We’ll be okay through the night and we’ll touch base in the morning and see what we need to do.”
Jessica Bennett: I got woke up at 2:00 in the morning, the fire had grown to about three thousand acres. From my house here, I could look up the mountain and I could see debris rolling down the hill and that’s how it had grown. And so we were beginning evacuations of Cascade Locks. And the troopers went out and started door to door, “Hey, it’s time to go. You need to go now. You’ve got 30 minutes,” like just rousting people and getting them out.
Graham Z: So, my first personal exposure to the Eagle Creek fire was on September 3, the second day of the fire. My wife, Shannon, and I were just returning home from Seattle driving through Portland on our way back to Bend. The air was hot and thick with smoke as we drove through town and after a quick stop for food we came out to a car covered in what looked like a light dusting of snow. But it was in fact fallen ash. It felt apocalyptic, it felt unnatural, and it felt scary. It felt deeply contrary to the reasons I had moved to Oregon a few years before for the east side sunshine, the lush vegetation on the west side, and the wide open spaces with plenty of room to think and to play.
Graham Z: The smoke and the ash were suffocating and as we continued to drive east towards Bend, along the flanks of Mt. Hood, I was terrified for the gorge and for the west at large. Would it all burn? Was this some sort of awful, new normal? Or was this the old normal? Was this just the side of the Oregon forests that I had not yet experienced? Having made it home safe, I continued to wonder if fires like this were normal. And as I investigated the natural history and ecology of the gorge, I quickly discovered the WyEast Blog published by a fellow named Tom Kloster. Tom is a naturalist focused on celebrating Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. He’s done an excellent job documenting the past of the space as well as tracking the Eagle Creek fire as it expanded from a relatively small contained space into the larger forest ecosystem of the Columbia River Gorge.
Tom Kloster: So, I’m Tom Kloster and I’ve actually lived my whole life here in Portland and been hiking in the gorge and Mt. Hood since I was four or five so that puts me at 50 years of exploring the gorge and Hood.
Graham Z: With Tom’s reference to Mt. Hood, it’s probably a good time to build out our view of this area and mention the stunning volcanoes that stand tall and proud in this part of the world. Directly to the south of the gorge, rises Mt. Hood, a stunning 11,250 foot peak that dominates the skyline for Portland. It’s part of the volcanic back arc that sits behind the Cascade Mountain Range and it also includes its neighbors Mount Adams, that rises over 12,000 feet from near sea level and Mount St. Helens, which was 9,677 feet tall until its massive eruption in 1980, which incredibly brought its summit down to 8,363 feet, and debris avalanches that totaled a nearly unimaginable .7 cubic miles in volume. This also is interestingly related to the name of Tom’s blog. Tell me, what is WyEast?
Tom Kloster: It’s reportedly a Native American name for Mt. Hood and there’s a legend that ties together what used to be known as the Three Guardian Peaks, Mt. Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. And in that legend there was a romantic duel back and forth between Mount Adams and Mt. Hood over Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens was a Loowit, Mount Adams was Pahto or Klickitat, depending on the legend, I believe and then Mt. Hood is Wyeast.
Graham Z: Oh cool. It’s not hard to believe that this mythical, romantic duel between the peaks was derived from the variety of eruptions that all these volcanoes have experienced over the last 10 thousand years. This demonstrates just the small part of the geographically violent past of this area. Tom has spent much of his life focused on understanding these events and how they shaped the gorge and during our conversation he regaled me with information about the gorge’s history.
Tom Kloster: The Columbia River flowed roughly in the area that it does now before the Cascade Range formed. And the Cascades rose up as a volcanic range with the Columbia basically just keeping pace with the mountains moving up.
Graham Z: He shared that there were three major events that formed the Columbia River Gorge.
Tom Kloster: So, one of them is called Eagle Creek Formation that’s a really loose layer of volcanic ash, it came from volcanoes.
Graham Z: These came from big eruptions like those we were talking about just a minute ago but from ones that took place closer to 20 million years ago.
Tom Kloster: And then there’s another event that followed that was what we call the flood basalts and they actually originated over in eastern Oregon. It’s hard to even imagine just today pretty liquid lava that spread all over eastern Oregon-
Graham Z: Seventeen to 14 million years ago these viscus lava flows covered an incredible 63,200 square miles of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and California.
Tom Kloster: The third phase that comes in is during the last Ice Age we had a glacial lake called Lake Missoula that formed and reformed numerous times and then burst and let out a huge amount of water. It flowed across-
Graham Z: It’s kind of funny for me to be chiming in to share the gravity of these events. And I think it’s because for guys like Tom, they feel normal but they’re immense cataclysmic events and maybe none more so than the Missoula floods from 15 to 13 thousand years ago. These have been described to me of 300 foot tall waves of water and mud crashing down the Columbia and destroying everything in their path while carving out features such as the Grand Coulees and the Columbia River Gorge.
Tom Kloster: That’s why you see this over-steepened face in the gorge. It’s just basically scoured everything that wasn’t solid basalt up to several hundred feet. That’s sort of the three pieces coming together, just the instability of the Eagle Creek formation with all that Columbia flood basalt on top of it and then being over-steepened by those floods has created a really dynamic geology that we’re seeing today continuing to fall apart and erode. And we’re kind of seeing a temporary in geologic terms state of the gorge being missed as rugged and steep. That’s why it’s so special. There’s few places that are this raw and developed from an event like that.
Graham Z: Volcanoes, lava flows, and giant floods crafted this ever-changing landscape. To close your eyes and picture these massive events is boggling, as are the geologic time scales on which these events took place. This might not feel like it relates to the subject of wild fire but understanding the Columbia is a dynamic area, it’s to understand that even looking at this space for 100 years is simply a snapshot. It is also to understand that this is not a place that is a stranger to huge, violent and cataclysmic events. And with that, Tom and I dove into the role of fire in this space.
Tom Kloster: So the Cascades kind of has a couple of fire realms. The western Cascades are not really fire force in the sense that they aren’t species that require fire although the ecosystem benefits from periodic fires. Back in the early 1900s, there was what we call a mosaic forest, which is just big burned areas or areas that were dodged the fire that had six, seven hundred year old trees. That’s sort of the pattern on the west side is you have these fires coming through every 50 or 100 years just sweeping through and then the forest regenerates. On the east side of the Cascades where it’s inherently dry, you have species like ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, western larch that depend on fire. They’ve evolved to have fire. And the pattern there, historically, up until a hundred years ago was frequent low intensity fires. And so that ecosystem actually depends on fire and-
Graham Z: That last line from Tom is much of what I’m trying to discover. Is fire natural here? Yes. It is not only natural but it is a force on which the ecology of the area relies. And you might remember from the first episode when we talked to Bryce Kellogg, he shared that the Columbia River Gorge is unique in the fact that it acts as a bridge between the eastern and western forest. The ones that depend on fires and those that are simply tolerant of them.
Tom Kloster: So, if you go back and look at old photos and so on you can clearly see that the gorge had burned a lot just as western or European settlement was coming into the area. What we saw with Eagle Creek, that’s a normal occurrence. And going back to the geology and geography of the gorge, it turns out that-
Graham Z: This felt to me like it really pinned down that fire is an important part of this area and one that we need to learn to understand. To get a little more on this, I went back to chat with Bryce Kellogg from the nature conservancy.
Bryce Kellogg: So, it’s something that might feel devastating and out of ecological characteristic to us on a human timescale might not be as big of a deal to the forest. I think that that plays into different people’s perspectives on when is fire okay, when is fire a disaster. So I think that figuring out how we live with fire and how that requires something that’s really hard for society, which is thinking in a little bit longer chunks than we tend to think. And it also means thinking about how we as a society expect or interact with these large natural events. Events that we now treat as disasters but are in some ways the same sort of kind of predictable disaster as a flood where the places that are at risk to fire, how do we as a society manage that risk and how can we work to mitigate that risk while also remembering that it’s not something that we can eliminate? There’s not-
Graham Z: That statement from Bryce Kellogg about being cognizant of the fact that we can only mitigate fire and not fully control it feels like it is at the heart of what we’re trying to get at. And he related that back to Eagle Creek.
Bryce Kellogg: When the Eagle Creek fire started, it was dry, it was windy. It’s also a situation where you get a fire that can blow up very quickly because of the conditions. From an ecological perspective, a fire like the Eagle Creek was not an ecological disaster, it was an expected fire. It’s something that happens in that ecological system.
Graham Z: I guess that now it seems obvious that fire is a natural part of this landscape and an event like that in Eagle Creek is in some ways meant to happen, no matter the ignition source. And as I think back to the feelings I had as I drove over Mt. Hood, smoke limiting the visibility down the highway, maybe that is something I should’ve expected from this part of the world. But this begs the question, if this is normal then how are we meant to deal with it? And where can we look to find the answers for how best to proceed? To investigate this further, Jim went back to Eagle Creek to look at the events there and see how they relate to these questions and who there might be able to help us understand our relationship with these massive forces of nature.
Jim Aikman: At the beginning of September 2017, I was at a bit of a low point in my personal life. I got home from a challenging three weeks abroad and my girlfriend dumped me right after I got off the plane. I got to work unpacking in a new apartment that was meant for two and a friend scraped me off the floor for a camping trip on Mt. Hood. And on Friday night we pitched our tents beside a river for Labor Day weekend. On Saturday afternoon, we saw the Eagle Creek fire explode from the other side of the mountain. Within hours the whole sky was full of smoke and we hightailed it back to the city. Everything was so dry, we saw a few smaller fires break out as we drove through the forest and the smoke seemed to glow with an orange hue as the summer sun shined through the 100 degree air. When the ash started to fall on Portland, 60 miles from the actual fire, it felt somewhat fitting that the world would burn around me as my life was crumbling.
Jim Aikman: Of course, I’m just being dramatic and my personal life recovered. I got over the girl and life got back to normal but I wonder if the same can be said about the forests of the Columbia River Gorge. Now almost two years after that fire, is this something we can or should consider a normal occurrence? Talking about my problems during that fire feels pretty darn petty now having heard stories from locals who were literally confronted with life and death. One woman in particular who lives with her family only a half mile from ground zero had a particularly remarkable story.
Ali High: I don’t know, looking back on it it was such an out of body experience, it’s almost like I’m talking about somebody else.
Jim Aikman: In September of 2017, Ali High had lived in the gorge for about two and a half years with her husband, their dog, and two cats.
Ali High: We just kind of fell in love with the gorge and the river and the people and the fish, just everything.
Jim Aikman: Picture this, the 90 mile stretch of the Columbia River that shaped the gorge is flanked to the south by steep hillsides that work their way up Mt. Hood, an 11,000 foot tall volcano with a handful of small towns squished between the slopes and the river, islands of civilization trapped between a massive waterway and steep vegetated cliffs. It was these very cliffs that the Eagle Creek carved into its many beautiful waterfalls and sheer canyons. And situated right at the base of the Eagle Creek is the town of Cascade Locks. Originally called Whiskey Flats, this small town along Highway 84 is the central hub for recreation in the gorge between Portland and the town of Hood River. It’s a very charming place surrounded by beautiful scenery, recreation opportunities, good food and people. That’s where Ali High and her husband live along with more than a thousand other full-time residents who would soon be left wondering if their little town would make it through the holiday weekend.
Ali High: I was 38 weeks pregnant, it had been a hellacious pregnancy. I was sick almost everyday for 38 weeks. I think I threw up the morning the fire started and it was-
Jim Aikman: And 38 weeks, let’s translate that to months for our listeners.
Ali High: I was nine months pregnant.
Jim Aikman: Okay, great.
Ali High: I was five days away from a scheduled induction.
Graham Z: At 3:30 in the morning, Ali High and her husband were definitely not sleeping. After a knock at the door, they were informed that Cascade Locks would be evacuated. They would have to pack up their lives and get out of dodge five days from the expected delivery date of their son.
Ali High: We have one car so it was me, very pregnant me, my husband, my dog, my two cats. So we had like a litter box and all the animal stuff and everything in our small SUV.
Jim Aikman: Were you assuming at this point that your house would be gone?
Ali High: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And it was really hard not to feel sorry for my unborn son, that’s what hurt me the most when I was thinking about we’re not going to have a home, he’s not going to have a home to come back to. What are we going to do?
Graham Z: During those early hours of the fire, when the hikers of Episode 1 were trapped overnight between the Eagle Creek fire and the Indian Creek fire, everyone who lived near the gorge was preparing for the worst.
Clay Courtright: So the evacuation day was definitely a traumatic event, we checked in with the team, made sure everyone’s okay, we have the safety equipment we need for proper protective equipment and then we’re taking care of patrons. But our focus really was on the public safety side and how is the gorge going to look moving forward and so is it going to come back and what’s it going to look like.
Graham Z: As Clay scrambled to make sense of the impending natural disaster, the rest of the area was wondering the same things. Is this gorge going to survive the fire? Which made us wonder, has it survived fires just like this in the past? And how did people live with this “natural phenomenon” before we had all of this technology and manpower to suppress and manage it?
Clay Courtright: This area was an inter tribal area and still is so you’ll have [inaudible 00:26:21], Chinook, Wasco, Yakama, there’s a lot of tribal activity here. The American Indian culture is still vibrant today.
Graham Z: There have been a handful of different tribes calling this part of the world home for a very long time. When Lewis and Clark traveled down the Columbia on their way to the Pacific Ocean, they encountered a thriving world of trade and industry, a meeting point for members of the many neighboring tribes.
Clay Courtright: Oh, it was a pretty major access point. It’s centrally located so it’s always been kind of a confluence. The tribal history folks would meet here, have fun, and visit with each other, see friends and family, and then trade, and then go back home. The vistas we enjoy today have been enjoyed for a long time.
Graham Z: It was nice to hear that an appreciation for a place like the Columbia Gorge transcends time. And it was no surprise that Native Americans began many of the traditions that are carried on there to this day.
Kat Brigham: I’m sorry, Jim.
Jim Aikman: Oh, that’s okay. Is this still a good time?
Kat Brigham: Yeah, the door’s shut and there’s nobody at the door.
Jim Aikman: All right. Well, we’ll get it while the getting’s good.
Kat Brigham: Okay.
Jim Aikman: That’s Kat Brigham. She works in the government of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla which includes the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla tribes. These confederated tribes, along with the other river tribes of Yakama, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce have always treasured the Columbia River system which spans thousands of miles of streams and rivers as it flows from its headwaters in the northern Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean. I had called Kat to get a history lesson on the habitation of Native peoples in the gorge and investigate their fire management techniques long before the settlers arrived. Kat told me all about the treaties that were made between her tribe and the American government. When settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest and the rights they reserved in those treaties for access to their food sources, like salmon, big game, roots, berries, and fresh water, what they call first foods which cease to exist without healthy rivers and forests.
Kat Brigham: When our treaty was signed, like I said, all of our ancestors from all three reservations were saying, “You know, we need to have access to our foods because it’s part of our heritage, it’s part of our culture, it’s part of our way of life.”
Jim Aikman: How would you describe to somebody who doesn’t know anything about the Umatilla, how would you describe the relationship with the land and why you chose to live in the Columbia River Gorge?
Kat Brigham: We all lived off the land and we all took care of the land and that was one of the things that was all of the tribal leaders said, “You take care of the land, the land will take care of you.” And that’s why we fight so hard to protect the environment because if you don’t take care of the water, the air, the land, who’s going to live there? That’s why taking care of the natural resources is so important to the tribes.
Jim Aikman: How would that apply to burns, to forest fires, and sort of prescribed burns?
Kat Brigham: Well, in fact we used to have prescribed burns. Our tribal people used to burn the underbrush so that our berries and our medicines and all of those things would come back and be in good health and our trees would be in good health.
Jim Aikman: This was an interesting notion. The technique of starting fires in order to stop fires has been used by the U.S. for a while but not as often or precisely as what Kat was describing.
Kat Brigham: When Smokey the Bear came along, prescribed burning was not something people did, you just logged it. On our reservation, we are doing prescribed burns and we’re working to get our trees to be healthy again. Because without the forest, you don’t have clean air, you don’t have clean water, you don’t have clean land. We look at our forest and we’ve developed a very comprehensive forest management plan that’s very … We require our staff to do a lot of analytical work to determine what do we need to take care of our forest. It’s so important to all of us, not only for the scenery but it’s because it helps take care of the land and the air as well, and the water, all of it as well. It’s all linked together.
Jim Aikman: Hearing about the confederated tribes of the Umatilla’s approach to fire management might sound simple but, in many ways, it’s more sophisticated than the millions and millions of dollars that get spent on more drastic fire suppression. Keep the forest healthy and it will provide. Sometimes this means burning intentionally in specific areas to preserve access to food, provide corridors for travel, and to prevent massive large-scale burns like what we’re seeing in the gorge. What Kat described was the prevention of catastrophic fires, not simply reacting to them once they’d started. Thinking about the next generations, preserving the environment, living in harmony with the forests and rivers which in turn provide sustenance. It’s a beautiful cycle. I was definitely moved by Kat’s commitment to a healthy environment, not just for her reservation, but everywhere. She recognized that these borders we’ve created, drawing imaginary lines between territories do not mean much to the waterways that pass through them, the wildlife that enjoy many of the same food and water sources that we do, and the forest fires that pay no heed to these borders.
Jim Aikman: It reminded me of the wonderful truth that we’re all in this together and we should respect the successful practices of those who came before us. And now, we’ll head back to Graham to learn more about how these practices are actually implemented in the field.
Graham Z: As I dug into the subject of how Native tribes are working in fire, I wanted to make sure that I did so in an appropriate and respectful way. As a 33 year old white guy, I wanted to ensure that the admiration that I hold for these communities was properly portrayed and that I wasn’t seen as simply looking for a sound bite in order to fill a box for the podcast. So, I went to Amanda Rau over at the nature conservancy. She’s been working with the tribes of Oregon and California for many years to both learn about fire. She’s not Native American and it has taken her many years to gain the trust of these communities. But today, she plays an integral role in how the fire and forest management communities on the reservations interface with the larger wild land fire community.
Amanda Rau: The current situation with fire management is, I would say, dominated by an exclusion of fire suppression of fire that was well intended starting back about a hundred years ago with some pretty explosive fires that occurred in the northern Rockies that-
Graham Z: This style of suppression tactics is something that Amanda is actively working to progress away from and many of the techniques for how to live more sustainably with fire are actually coming from the tribes.
Amanda Rau: We can look at how people lived with fire before that. Fire was a friend and a tool and something that improved the land and kept it healthy rather than something that came and burned your house down or took out a forest that otherwise tolerated a lot of fire on a frequent basis with low intensity. It’s thinking about it in terms of how powerful of a tool it is, how useful it can be and we’ve just come to not see it for what it could do for us. And so if we can acknowledge that history and really connect with people who still have that as part of how they view their landscape. It’s hard to see a connection to the land without fire for a lot of people who are from indigenous communities whether it’s on the coastal headlands or the interior, [inaudible 00:34:11] Valley, the Columbian Basin, there’s very few tribes that don’t have a connection with their landscape that involves using fire for some purpose or another.
Amanda Rau: So, there’s really been a tall order in terms of fighting for those rights, to get those rights back. In some cases, tribes have had to be burning in a more clandestine way in order to continue their tradition so-
Graham Z: It’s amazing to hear they have been making progress and as we alluded to earlier, the non-Native community is now learning from the Native communities on how they can better live with fire in their backyards.
Amanda Rau: So, we’re at a time now where the recognition of prescribed fire and controlled ecological burning is becoming more socially acceptable again. It’s becoming more recognized as a viable tool for managing these landscapes, which means that then doors are opened for them more as well. But I would say that the revival is dependent on the continuity of their culture, it varies depending on the tribe and how much they were affected by some of the prohibitions of just speaking their languages even. So some tribes have been more able to keep their cultures in tact than others but there’s a lot of effort going into either continuing that and building off of that or reviving it. I think supporting that is really important.
Graham Z: As we wrapped up our chat, Amanda offered to put me in touch with one of her colleagues from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. And she explained to me their relationship to the Eagle Creek burn area.
Amanda Rau: The Eagle Creek fire encompasses territories that would’ve historically been occupied by or at least visited by the Wasco bands even though Warm Springs proper within that geographic boundary, doesn’t quite get up that far. Folks who are on that reservation now and whose ancestors occupied that Columbian Basin would’ve been in the area of Eagle Creek.
Graham Z: A few days later, I sat down with Dorian Soliz. He was down in Bend for a training as part of his role as the Superintendent of the Warm Springs Fire Module. He lives on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. We started out by talking about what his role is on the Warm Springs Fire Management team and how he got into wildland firefighting.
Dorian Soliz: I have been in wildland firefighting for 18 years and my current qualifications I’m a Incident Commander Type 3 and a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss Type 2 and I am a Division Supervisor trainee. Initially, when I started in March 2001 I got into wildland firefighting to start paying back student loans. I had just completed my college education at Western Oregon University and, yeah, I needed to start paying back some student loans before the interest started kicking in and I started owing more. So, in central and eastern Oregon the quickest way to acquire funding is through wildland firefighting. And it’s steady work so I became a student of the wildland firefighting game and it was a challenge both physically and mentally. And I thought, “Man, I really like this job.”
Graham Z: In September of 2017, Dorian was working the Indian Creek fire. You might recognize this name from the first episode when the hikers were trapped because they were pinned between the freshly started Eagle Creek fire and the Indian Creek fire.
Dorian Soliz: When we got ordered for that incident, it was real small, it was quite a hike in. It was almost seven and a half miles one way.
Graham Z: Dorian runs what is called a Wildland Fire Module. This is a 10-person team of firefighting personnel dedicated to planning, monitoring, and starting fires. They’re some of the best trained, most efficient fire teams in the country and they specialized in not only in fighting and controlling fires but also in forecasting and prescribing them. Dorian’s team is the only wildland fire module under the umbrella of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Dorian Soliz: We take the pictures, we do all the GPS, and we do the mapping, we get types of vegetation, we get changes in elevation. We get all the information that fire managers need to come up with informed decisions on how to proceed with dealing with the fire. So, I was the IC, the Incident Commander, and the rest of my module they were out gathering the intelligence. And Indian Creek started to grow. I said, “It’s going to be a matter of time before she really starts chewing up some land and she’s going to get out of this wilderness area. So I think we should start ordering a team, put it together, and we start planning.”
Graham Z: He was right.
Dorian Soliz: She went from about 63 acres to 383 acres in one burn period, which is pretty much 12 to 16 hours. They ordered a NEMO team, which is a national management team that specializes in long duration incidents. So I handed over all the information that we had gathered, all the plans to the forest. I showed them the map, I showed them the pictures that my guys took, the actions that we had done, what was working, what wasn’t and they took over from there. I think Eagle Creek fire kind of went sideways before they could start implementing stuff off those plans for Indian Creek. They went defensive rather than offensive mostly because of those folks that were trapped and it’s unfortunate.
Graham Z: By the time the fire was bearing down on the town of Cascade Locks over Labor Day weekend, he was on another job in Montana. But talking to him about how the events unfolded, he was clearly disappointed that the plans and predictions he drew up were not able to be implemented. And instead, the fire got out of control. It was also clear that he understood that this was no fault of the teams who were working on the fire rather they were combating a perfect storm of conditions under which the fire grew with terrifying ease. This moved into a larger discussion about attitudes towards wildland fire.
Dorian Soliz: There are actually a lot of misconceptions about wildland fire. I think it has to do with demographics and maybe a little bit of stereotyping. Folks from urban areas, “Oh, there’s a wildfire. It’s bad. It’s burning everything up.” Sure, there are some devastating effects of wildland fire but there are also forest health benefits behind wildland fire. And with that, a lot of this job is one to fight fire, the other is to help Mother Nature out, and I’m going to use this loosely, but the controlled fire aspect. Folks don’t understand that wildland fire is a very important part of the land ecology. Fire has always been a part of starting over. And a good example, here in central Oregon the farmers, they have harvests and then they burn the fields. That creates nutrients to regrow more plants or whatever they’re growing. That’s a very important part and a lot of people miss that. They see fire as bad and it’s not, it’s part of the ecology for the range land or the lowlands and in the forests.
Graham Z: As we chatted, it became apparent that due to the different cultural attitude towards fire along with the legal autonomy of the reservation, Dorian and the rest of fire management community in Warm Springs are able to use their land as a sort of laboratory for wildland fire.
Dorian Soliz: Compared to some of the forest service and state forestry, we don’t have to deal with the same type of hurdles. All our people in Warm Springs are knowledgeable in fire and forestry. I’m estimating that probably 65 to 75% of our population has worked in forestry in some capacity or has worked in fire. So when we do or we propose fields reduction projects, which now become part of forestry timber sales, we have no problems getting them approved. Our folks are informed, they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Graham Z: And as we wrapped up our conversation, I was really excited to hear that Dorian felt that his community’s insights in how to deal with fire were translating into the larger wildland fire community.
Dorian Soliz: In my 18 years I’ve definitely seen a shift from, “Oh yeah, let’s go get this fire,” to some places that I’ve been on fires where it’s, “Well, we’ll get the fire in one section but over here we want it to start cleaning itself up. We’ll just watch it. And if it gets to this point, then we’ll go get it. But it’s not doing too bad here, it’s not burning real hot, we’re not losing big trees or anything like that. It’s cleaning itself up.” So there’s definitely been a turn around on how land managers approach wildland fire. So, yeah, I think it’s kind of refreshing that they’re starting to recognize this and some of the general public is starting to see it too.
Graham Z: The basic question that we set out to answer in this episode was, are wildfires natural? And if so, are they essential? And looking at history, the answer was clear. Yes. What we learned was that our forests, these ecological masterpieces, could not exist without a burn cycle. When we finished our interviews for this episode, did our research, and compared notes it was clear that our country’s current approach to wildfire management has changed a lot from the approach of the Native Americans who struck a harmonious chord with nature, fitting the needs of their people into the needs of the land with a deeper appreciation of the environment that extended beyond recreation or resource extraction to a healthy symbiotic relationship with forests. This approach worked successfully for thousands of years and we’re seeing a dramatic resurgence of their techniques as indigenous communities work to return the landscape to the sort of homeostasis that it enjoyed historically.
Graham Z: Of course, there’s a lot more to consider now. Our planet’s population have skyrocketed as have its needs and complexities but maybe the past is the best place to look for the wisdom that we need in the future. And yet, those methods can seem a bit antithetical to that of the U.S. Forest Service. As we’ll learn in the next episode, the law of the land for the U.S. Forest Service has been to suppress and combat fires. But what has that done to our nation’s forests? Could that have anything to do with the number and severity of wildfires popping up in the headlines every summer? Is there room to improve that approach perhaps by combining the best practices of all schools of thought into a more evolved system? Which brings us back to the beginning, as with all complex issues, this one is not black and white and always depends on our optics. After all, no matter how we approach wildfire, we will always need to defend our property and lives when it encroaches on civilization as it was encroaching on Cascade Locks in the Columbia River Gorge.
Graham Z: Jessica Bennett, the Fire Chief in Cascade Locks, was quickly coming around to the realization that this fire was about to erupt. She made a call for additional firefighting resources from the government. But would it be enough to prevent the coming onslaught? The fire was about to grow by 600% in about 12 hours with no signs of stopping. It was clear that this situation was going to get much worse before it got any better.
Jessica Bennett: They just watched it all of a sudden just blow up huge. So, what it was doing was the wind was catching stuff and hitting ridge top to ridge top and then it would catch the ridge top on fire and debris would roll down the hill and catch the hillside on fire.
Graham Z: Overall, the first 24 hours of the Eagle Creek fire were utter chaos. The hikers spent a cold night out in the elements. Shelley James sat in her car, waiting to watch her town burn to the ground. Ali High High rushed down the Interstate 84 with her husband, pets, and unborn son to check into a hotel. And the fire exploded beyond all projections as the wind picked up and sprayed the flames west towards Portland. As everyone within striking distance prepared for the worst, the reality began to sink in, this fire had not started from a natural lightening strike or spontaneous combustion. In fact, there was nothing natural about the start of the fire at all nor anything like the prescribed burns of the Native tribes. It was simply started by a teenager and a smoke bomb.
Graham Z: And that brings us back to the central paradox of this conversation, the disconnect between this natural phenomenon and the very unnatural way that it began.
Shelly James: When I found out how the fire started, I was livid. I was so angry. It’s just some kid making a stupid decision trying to impress some girls, I don’t know. I’m still trying to move forward from that. Where the heck were his parents? What the heck was he thinking? Somebody ought to like grab him by the throat and shake him a little bit, you know.
Graham Z: When we look at what was happening in the Columbia River Gorge, it is easy to understand why people were angry, even if their homes and communities were not directly threatened. It seemed that everyone’s heart was breaking for their favorite gorge. It is also easy to understand why people in the throes of their grief might’ve sat back and said, “The gorge is going to be completely destroyed by this fire.” But based on what we learned in this episode, destroyed may not be the best word for the forest itself. The many communities in the gorge were certainly facing that devastating prospect. But should those watching from Portland and beyond have begun right away to mourn the loss of this natural space? We’ll look more closely at that question in later episodes when we examine the recovery of the gorge and the approach of policymakers. But it’s worth asking here as well because the anger that everyone felt towards this fire and the person who started it came from a deeper place than a concern for the health and well-being of the trees themselves, which we’ve learned would grow back and ultimately benefit from this fire.
Graham Z: Rather, what was under threat was our idea of the gorge. This place that was once in our minds perfect, pristine, and unsullied. As the fire grew, for many people, it was like imagining a loved one get in a car accident or going through cancer treatment. And yes, we have learned that fire can be good for forests as an integral part of a natural ecological turnover. However, for many of us that understanding arrives only in hindsight and with a great amount of distance, patience, and compassion. And ultimately that understanding would do little good for the fate of one teenage boy who made the biggest mistake of his life on September 2. Dealing with that mistake would require a swift and forceful response from wildfire professionals. In other words, fighting back the flames to protect the towns, homes, historical buildings, and lives of those in the gorge.
Graham Z: As we continue the story of the Eagle Creek wildfire in Oregon, we will take a dive into the world of wildland firefighting, how it works, and how it affects those who go head to head against this terrifying force of nature next time on Episode 3 of Wild Fire.
Graham Z: Wild Fire is a production of REI, Bedrock Film Works, and Podbeat, and part of the REI Podcast Network. The podcast was written by Jim Aikman and myself, Graham Zimmerman, and was produced by the two of us alongside Chelsea Davis and our editor and audio wizard, Evan Phillips. Wild Fire is a weekly podcast presented by REI.