Wildfire Episode Five: The Future of Wildfire


The kid had started a fire that burned 49,000 acres of forest—76 square miles—a fire that closed a major highway, keeping hundreds of thousands of people from visiting the Gorge and its many businesses that rely on tourism to stay afloat. Oregon Parks and Recreation had to lay off a few dozen people to make up for lost business; The many families of the Gorge that evacuated suffered enormous financial burdens and emotional trauma; Five-thousand homes were threatened by the fire; The slopes of the Gorge were destabilized, as the root systems holding the dirt together burned up, leaving it prone to landslides and rockfall; The fire rained ash on Portland for days, and the smoke-filled air was a serious health hazard for more than a week; Many of the trails and campgrounds in the Gorge are still closed to this day. Clearly, the consequences were far reaching, and all of this would need to be considered in court.

At the end of a contentious trial, the court decided the kid would serve no jailtime, but he would be fined the total amount of damages from the fire: $36,618,330. On top of the fine, he was given five years of probation and nearly 2,000 hours of community service and would have to write letters to everyone impacted by the fire. And he was banned from ever returning to the Columbia River Gorge scenic area. His life had changed forever.

In episode five of Wildfire, we dive into the political spectrum around wildfire, and look into management solutions for dealing with the future of wildfire in the United States. And we’ll wrap things up in the Columbia River Gorge, concluding the story of Oregon’s 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

Listen to Wildfire on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Key takeaways:

  • 1:15 – “Before we went on the fieldtrip, the kids were still carrying around a lot of confusion and fear around what happened in the fire and how it affected their lives.”
  • 4:44 – “As the fire died down, a largescale criminal investigation immediately swung into action, involving a number of law enforcement agencies. The community wanted somebody to pin the tragedy on, and they wanted a swift sentencing.”
  • 5:18 – “When the kid arrived at the arraignment, he was charged with a litany of crimes…”
  • 7:46 – “When I first started talking to people about the kid who started the fire….”
  • 14:58 – “Everything I was hearing was leading me to assume that this kid is probably a nice guy, with respect for the laws and cultural mores of this country. But he had made a huge mistake, and he would have to pay a price for that.”
  • 16:24 – “A national treasure is scarred for generations…”
  • 18:21 – “It made me upset, because it wasn’t about trying to find the learning moment… it was about just punishing him.”
  • 19:09 – The kid declined to speak to any journalists or address the public, except for this statement that he read at his trial…
  • 21:47 – “It was inevitable that the forest would burn. As we’ve learned throughout this series, it simply has to. In fact, experts even agree that the forests in that area were overdue for a major fire.”
  • 22:23 – “Over the last two years, since the fire went out, tempers around here have definitely cooled. It seemed that everyone I talked to had come around to a place of empathy and compassion, replacing anger and vengeance.”
  • 24:56 – “Isn’t the system of forestry management that left the Columbia River Gorge so extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic fire as much to blame for what happened in Eagle Creek as this 15-year-old kid?”
  • 25:52 – “I hope that we’ve all learned some valuable lessons, as well: To be better stewards of our planet; to be more responsible in nature; to be more humble, and respectful, and compassionate.”
  • 26:23 – “The Eagle Creek Fire is almost two years in the rearview mirror, and we’re entering the 2019 wildfire season.”
  • 27:30 – “As we’ve learned, this is a national issue… So, what’re we doing at a political level, from the top down, to combat this problem?”
  • 31:35 – A conversation with Dr. Paul Hesberg, a 35-year veteran of the Forest Service’s Research and Development group as a fire ecologist in the Pacific Northwest.
  • 32:35 – “We’ve been finding that the annual acres burned has been increasing consistently from year-to-year and decade-to-decade. And we’re seeing a nexus of a warming and drying climate interacting with 100 years or more of fire exclusion, which increased the area and density of many of our forests.”
  • 33:08 – “The studies throughout the world are really conclusive. Rational minds aren’t arguing about whether or not we’re living in a new climate change world. We are. Period.”
  • 34:30 – “We need to create wildfire-adapted communities. Get ready for the fires that are coming—because they’re coming—and we can get ready before the fact.”
  • 35:34 – Scientists have developed seven core landscape principles that they think will move us in a direction that’s much more symbiotic with respect to wildfire.
  • 41:04 – Exploring what’s happening in the Columbia River Gorge today, as it recovers from the Eagle Creek Fire.
  • 44:05 – “It’ll look different, but it’s still a beautiful place to explore and enjoy, and will be, hopefully, for generations to come.”
  • 44:47 – “Here we are, at the end of the story… disaster to regrowth.”


More about the Wildfire podcast

When a wildfire arrives at our doorstep, it’s a tragedy. This is especially true when these fires are human caused. But fire has always been an immense and immovable part of the natural order, particularly in the forests of the western United States.

Forest fires and the destruction they cause are not black and white phenomenon, and they cannot be understood without looking closely at the issues that swirl and mutate around the subject of wildfire as much as the fires themselves.

In Wildfire, hosts Graham Zimmerman and Jim Aikman explore the natural forest habitats in which wildfires burn, and how humans have historically interacted with forest fires and fire-susceptible terrain. Graham and Jim lead us into wild places impacted by forest fire; into history books; into conversations with scientists, naturalists, firefighters and politicians; and into the story of the destructive 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, a human-caused forest fire that forever changed Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, one of the most unique and beloved scenic areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Guided by the story of the Eagle Creek Fire—and the ordeal of the 150 hikers who were unexpectedly trapped behind its towering flames—Wildfire explores how, over the last 100 years in the United States, we have demonized and sought to suppress wildfire in an effort to preserve natural resources, scenic spaces, and, of course, human civilization.

Connect with the team

You can see more of Graham and Jim’s work through their production company, Bedrock Film Works.

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