Multnomah Falls lodge to open in December
Some Bridal Veil community members are disappointed with the government's response in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge.
Several gorge residents came together for a meeting Tuesday evening, Nov. 21. to discuss the lasting impacts of the fire and the recovery efforts.
The fire started Sept. 2, allegedly by a teenage boy from Vancouver, Wash., playing with smoke bombs and fireworks. The blaze burned through a 75-square-mile area, forcing evacuations, road and freeway closures, and damaging one of the state's most beloved natural areas and tourist destinations.
The 15-year-old is charged with reckless burning and other offenses in Hood River County. His name has not been released by county law enforcement or the court.
Led by Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann and hosted by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, 48100 Historic Columbia River Highway, Tuesday's meeting was a chance for those affected by the fire to ask questions and raise concerns.
"I have never been so proud of how this community came together," Stegmann said. "It was incredible the sense of community with individuals and businesses stepping up to help."
The meeting included representatives from Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, U.S. Forest Service, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, Multnomah County Emergency Management and the Oregon Tourism Commission.
"Nobody is working in a silo. We are all combining to ensure the livability for the people who live here," said Jason Gates, chief deputy with the sheriff's office.
In the short term the agencies are working to help community members and businesses with recovery. Interstate 84 is becoming more reliable for travel, though it's still on a one-lane configuration as drivers approach Hood River. The main safety concern continues to be the danger of falling trees and rocks, which is heightened along the Historic Columbia River Highway just south of the freeway.
That same danger is the reason many of the trails are still closed east of Sandy River Delta all the way to Hood River, and south to Mount Hood National Forest. The closures will remain in place until teams are able to conduct trail assessments in the areas, which will be delayed until the spring because of shifting conditions this winter.
"Our mission is to ensure public safety and enforce the laws and regulations in reference to the closed areas and parking," Gates said. "Continue to get the message out about the real dangers in the burned areas."
A top priority is the reopening of the Multnomah Falls scenic area, but in phases. The first will allow people to access the lodge, which is planned to be reopened by the end of December. The second phase will open the lower viewing area, while the third, likely by early next summer, will let pedestrians walk to the historic Benson Bridge. The trail to the top of the falls will take longer, with projections at least one year out.
The forum allowed the Bridal Veil community to voice concerns. Most people commented on those coming into the area and engaging in dangerous activities, while others spoke about people racing cars along the roads and parking vehicles in dangerous places.
"If you see something and want a police response, please call," Gates said.
As the meeting continued, the discussion became more heated. Those who spoke loudest said the community's voice had not been heard. Beyond people coming into the area for allegedly nefarious reasons, residents also opposed reopening roads, fearing the return of the normal crush of tourists.
The discussion drifted from concerns stemming from the Eagle Creek Fire to ongoing community concerns. Residents said they want public access to the tourist destinations based on their ability to physically accommodate visitors. Others voiced a desire for the 15-year-old suspect to be held responsible for the damages and trauma caused by the Eagle Creek Fire.
By the close of the gathering, community members also expressed appreciation to first responders who worked hard to keep the communities throughout the Gorge safe from the wildfire.
"I am happy to come out any time and address your concerns," Stegmann said. "We will be sharing contact information for everyone who was here so you can continue to share your concerns and ask questions."