Eagle Creek Fire: My story

The eagle creek fire. One of the most influential natural disasters in Oregon's history. Started by a single firework thrown in by a teenager, spreading to over 50,000 acres in a matter of days. Fueled by thick underbrush let to collect for decades, dry late summer conditions, and right in the middle of a wind tunnel.

Most of you reading this already know the story of the fire. So, I will focus purely on what I have witnessed, and how it affected me personally. I apologize for my spelling and grammar mistakes in advance. This is my mind, unfiltered.

 

So, who am I?

My name is Nathan Zaremskiy. I have been born and grew up in the Portland metro area. Rarely if ever leaving sight of Mt. Hood until recent years. Early on, I was extremely interested in aviation and have wanted to pursue a career as a passenger airline pilot. That quickly changed when I've spent a few summers in eastern Washington. Slowly getting more and more interested in landscape photography, admiring the lovely fields of Palouse and the snake river canyon itself. Over the years my love of nature has grown steadily, photographing just about anything I've seen. But, there was still one very important link I needed to connect. Until one day I've decided to trek out on my first hike into Oneonta Gorge. There, the missing piece has been welded and my love of nature sealed forever.

Welding the link

 

Oneonta Falls

The first trek

The photo viewed here is my first time seeing the waterfall, on my first true hike.

Unfortunately, this is one of the very few photos that I have left of my first trek. Due to my phone suffering a little water damage from an unrelated source soon after. This trip has sealed my fate of respecting, protecting and preserving nature. The incredible high walls blanked in vibrant green moss, the cool air gently blowing through the canyon caused by the waterfall at the end, the sense of belonging in nature was extremely strong here. Walking in the creek, within a narrow slot canyon no wider than 20 feet in most places. With a thick canopy above, for the first time, I have felt I was a part of nature. Since this day, Oneonta has been extremely special to me and has helped me with depression on a few occasions. Buying me time to rethink and regroup.

Of everything else in the gorge, losing access to Oneonta Gorge has been the hardest hit for me personally. This was my 2nd home.

The calm before the storm

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017. Noon. I worked as Campground Maintenance staff for Lost Lake Resort just one ridge over from the eagle creek drainage. We've had smoke lingering around for nearly two months from the Indian Creek fire started on 4th of July of that year which closed a few trails on Eagle creek already.

The day went on as normal. I was part of parking staff that day helping out with the usual weekend crowds. By noon most of the crowds have calmed down and are enjoying a beautiful late summer pacific northwestern day with friends and family.

No one around ever expected it. Little did we know, our lives were about to be changed forever.

 

Eagle Creek FIre 2:23pm

2:20 PM

At this point I've been just outside of the campground entrance assisting with overflow parking, then I see it. A large white plume of smoke begins to rise above the trees, I haven't thought about it too much thinking it was just the Indian Creek fire. Oh, boy was I so wrong.

The chase

5 PM. I've gotten off work around this time, can't remember the exact time but close enough. Most of the visitors have left, and now we're closing up shop for the day. Sitting in the breakroom in the lodge, I've overheard some guests talking about a new fire. Curiously I've quickly tried to look it up on my phone. Sure enough, my fear has come to pass. A major fire in the gorge. Not just any part of the gorge, but the oldest, most beautiful, pristine part of the gorge. My heart sank.

Quickly, I've packed anything I needed into my car, being a Sleeping bag, some food, water, and of course my camera equipment, and set off to Cascade Locks.

 

Lost Lake road view of fire

5:53 PM

The drive down Lost Lake road has given me the first idea of how severe the fire is. Seeing as this was just a few hours after the first report and completely engulfed Hood River, it became clear to me that the gorge was in huge, huge trouble. By the time I've reached Hood River, the air was extremely hard to breathe, visibility was low, and nervousness has settled in.

 

Driving down I-84, getting closer and closer to cascade locks have offered some incredible, bet terrifying views of the fire. A plume of smoke was rising higher and higher as if it was a volcanic eruption. Eagle Creek has become the epicenter of one of the most influential natural disasters in Oregon's history. Threatening thousands of homes, threatening businesses that rely on tourism. If they do survive the fire, will they survive the coming years? Multnomah falls alone receives 2 million visitors every year. Hikers from around the world drop by restaurants and shops in cascade locks before or after a hike on near by trailheads. It is the lowest point on the PCT, what will this mean for next years Thru-hikers? There are many questions to be asked. No one knows the answer to either of them.

Eagle Creek Fire

7:17 PM.

When I arrived just outside of cascade locks, I was horrified. A giant plume of smoke rising over one of the most pristine forests in Oregon, with some of the most spectacular waterfalls around. This was not going to be an easy fight; this was going to be historic, I said to my self. "I will document this fire to the end"

Night 1

As the sun went down and darkness settled in, a faint red glow was constant overhead from the growing eagle creek fire just above us. Locals, visitors, news crews, photographers, firefighters, policemen, everybody was out; cascade locks was THE place to be on Saturday night. Everyone wanted to get the first look of the flames, as they slowly crept up higher and higher up the canyon. Nearby places began evacuations as it became clear the fire will not stop. The storm has begun.

First sight

Behold! the fire is visible!

The very first view of the fire as it peaked over the ridge. viewed from the Eagle Creek fish hatchery.

 

The fire is coming! Little did I know that tonight was going to be the last night I'll be able to drive this close to the trailhead. As of writing this in late March 2018, the exit is still closed.

News crews were out interviewing the evacuated campers; firefighters are going in to rescue the stranded hikers, policemen are watching the fire in horror, no one could believe their eyes. How can this happen? A beautiful clear late summer day is turning in to a hellish nightmare. I've overheard someone who came over from the Bridge of the God's saying the view is better. Naturally, I've packed up and rushed over. I was a little late, so I've driven out to North Bonneville. There I've witnessed something I thought I'd only see from volcanic eruptions, something I couldn't believe. A plume of smoke is rising higher than any surrounding walls as if eagle creek had a secret volcano that has finally erupted.

Eruption

"Like a volcanic eruption"

These photographs were shot in a span of 4-5 minutes

By midnight, the fire has calmed down. Being awake for nearly 20 hours at this point, I have decided it was time to get some sleep and returned to the lake for the night.

 

Night 2

September 3rd was a Sunday, so I was again part of the parking crew for the lake. However, unlike yesterday the lake was entirely blanketed by smoke and made it difficult to breathe. Work was terrible, but everyone made it through the day. No significant fire growth has happened today, but there were concerns about the fire's potential to spread to the lake. I've kept the evacuation plan firmly in the back of my mind just in case we got the order from the forest service. Overall, today was relatively tame.

The lake

Lost Lake Smoked In

September 3rd, 2017.

Night 3: The big game

Monday, September 4th, 2017. Monday's and Tuesday's were my days off, so I happened to be relaxing at home. Following news stories closely in case anything significant started to go down. Around 10 PM, it happened. The wind tunnel has become alive! The fire has spread over 10,000 acres in a matter of hours. The fire primarily jumped from ridge to ridge, climbing quickly then slowing down as embers fall into the canyon, and repeating the process. Munra Point was the last hope of stopping the fire in its tracks. But unfortunately, no defense was in place. Once the fire jumped munra point, which was the last major ridge it had to jump, there was no way of stopping the fire. When it did, its all over. So I've quickly got in my car, refueled and headed out to North Bonneville via SR-14 after hearing the news that I-84 is shut down. Driving down SR-14 was frightening due to the amount of traffic and curious visitors wanting a glimpse of this historic fire. Passing beacon rock, I look across the river. The fire has already spread to Elowah Falls. Arriving at North Bonneville, all I see are smolders. I have missed the peak of the fire here, realizing it is spreading at an incredible speed, I turn around changing my destination to Cape Horn, Driving by beacon rock again less than a half hour later, the fire is already long gone.

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The late arrival

Arrived at North Bonneville a little late. The fire has moved on west.

Reaching cape horn, I see the fire on the horizon, slowly making its way toward me and other photographers gathered at the overlook. Within a half hour, the entire Oregon side of the gorge was in flames; the fire has spread at around 10-25mph in some places, engulfing anything it can. Looking out towards where Multnomah Falls should be, I wonder if the lodge is on fire or being saved by the incredibly brave firefighters. The smoke began getting thicker and thicker, not being able to find a smoke mask due to incredible demand. Ash from once tall strong trees landing in my hair and up my nose. I can feel the heat coming from the other side of the river; the sky is glowing bright red, something you should never see in the gorge at this time of night. If hell looked like anything, this was it.

 

Peak of the fire

"Is that a fire in on this side!? No, that is totally a fire! Look!" A woman shouted, at around 1:50 AM on September 5th. Being the one with a camera, I instantly directed my focus on a tiny glowing dot what looks to be near beacon rock. A couple of long exposure shots later, I may have been one of the first to confirm the new fire, and possibly taken one of the very first photographs of the eagle creek fire jumping the mighty Columbia River. Immediately dialing 911 to report the new fire, which turned out to later become the Archer Mountain Fire, caused by an ember of the eagle creek fire. This is the Yacolt fire repeating itself. I've realized that this fire now has the potential to burn hundreds of thousands of acres over the next few days if they don't control it in time. The Gorge as we know it will be gone for decades.

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"The fire jumped the Columbia!"

1:51 AM. This photo was taken and to me has confirmed that the fire has jumped the Columbia River. Immediately calling 911.

Corbett, a small town just across the river was being evacuated at the last minute. The fire is spreading so quickly it was hard to believe! Vista house was a huge subject among other people around me, how the fire might be at the viewpoint already, shattering the stained glass windows as we speak. Everyone was choking on smoke; eyes are watering as if we were crying, ash in our hair, feeling the heat of hell. By 3 AM, the fire died down to a smolder. Upset, worried, tired, confused, overwhelmed, I've decided to head home. I was unsure how the gorge would look once the smoke cleared. After seeing such a blaze, I expected there to be nothing but black snags throughout the Oregon side. As for the Archer Mountain fire? I didn't even want to think about it, not knowing if it's spreading quickly or under control.

Ash Tuesday

It was a calm, smoky morning in the Portland metro area. Everything felt odd; everyone was quiet. Checking the news, I see news stories of the fire jumping all over the internet. Eagle creek fire went national. Oregon was put on stage for the entire nation to see.

Still tired, I mentally prepared my self for the destruction I may see, before driving out to cape horn a few hours later. Around 5 PM, I couldn't see the Oregon side what so ever. Not even the little island in the river, it was that thick. I knew I would have to wait a few days before anyone can see the aftermath. However, I was told that Multnomah falls lodge has survived the night, as well as the vista house. This was a significant relief to me, knowing at least something might come out of this! I ended up talking with a few people at cape horn about their experience. One of them being an evacuee of the Archer Mountian fire the night before.

I've also got the word around this time that Lost Lake was closed down by the Forest Service. I was now worried that my season might come to an end way sooner than expected. Not having anywhere else to go yet, I have become a victim of the fire.

 

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Stopping at St Cloud was probably one of the weirdest experiences I've had. It was quiet, too quiet. The ridges are ominously hiding in the smoke from the night before. I've sat on a rock for a good half hour, thinking about the gorge's future, what does this mean for Oregon, what does it mean to me and everyone affected by it? So many questions to answer, but no one to answer them. Out of the silence comes the thundering sound of a helicopter, seeing it come out from the direction of Archer mountain. Picking up a bucket of water, and never seeing it again. Returning to complete silence once more.

How the fire affected me

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Lost Lake Evacuated

September 11th, 2017. 6:50 PM.

On September 11th, the lake was completely smoked in, and void of life. Remind you of anything?

It's hard to imagine that a little over a week ago, the lake was a thriving little destination. Now, it is empty with no signs of visitors.

I wasn't present at the lake during the evacuation, after the few days I've spent chasing the fire, I've returned to an eerily quiet Lost Lake. It turns out; we've closed a month early, Early September instead of the schedules October 1st close date, hoping we will reopen when the smoke clears, which never came.  Meaning, I've lost at least months wages.

The lake was closed off to the public for safety; I now live in a Level 2 evacuation zone. At one point I have seen a soft glowing red sky just above the ridge, a strong reminder that all might be lost.

Fearing the worst, I begin taking what could be the last photos of the inside of the lodge, the lakes lush greenery, and what once was a family getaway for decades. But that wasn't the worst of it; the word was going around between friends and co-workers at the lake that we might be trapped in by the fire if it spreads the wrong way, a fear no one wanted to imagine. Thankfully, the fire showed mercy and held back.

A couple of weeks go by; we are now winterizing the lake. Pulling down yurts, cleaning campsites, last bit of brush trimming, boarding up cabins, a clear sign the season is almost over. Five days a week, for the next month, we finish up the last bit of tasks before heading to a new job for the season. To me, I must rush to find a new home and a new job for the winter. But that is quite difficult considering how short notice the season ended. I've had to seek refuge at my cousin's house until I found work for the winter. This was possibly one of the more stressful times of my life.

In the end, my first season ended with an unexpected early closure that I could've never imagined. Finding a winter job was incredibly difficult due to the way I've been raised, and my favorite place on the planet, being burnt black. I really have lost a home, Lost Lake was my home, and I was forced out over one single misplaced firework.

Be careful out there.

 


I would love to thank all the emergency responders who put their life on the line to save whatever they could, and amazingly saving Multnomah Falls Lodge! These people are made of steel! Thank you to the road crews who reopened I-84 a few weeks later. Thank you to anyone involved in the rescue mission of the stranded eagle creek hikers. All of you deserve to be recognized for your amazing actions.


If you made it this far, thank you very much for reading through my story. I realize there are lots of grammar and spelling mistakes, but the purpose of this was to let my mind blurb out unfiltered thoughts. I will be working on a full, more detailed story, along with more high-quality photographs of my experiences that I will release late 2018/early 2019. Consider this blog post as a small quick preview.

 

*Note* Not all photos are meant to be extremely detailed. Most I've uploaded were just quick color corrections shots just for this post.