SKAMANIA COUNTY – As he stood along a recently cleared access road south of Archer Mountain, Chris Werner’s eyes remained glued to a few small flames that crackled as they danced on the forest floor about 10 feet away from him.
“At any time, anything can happen,” he said. “You always have to be ready.”
It’s tedious work, but Werner spent Wednesday keeping the flames from getting too high and spreading past the south line of the wildfire, which has grown to about 75 acres in the two days since it sparked from the Eagle Creek Fire raging in Oregon.
Werner and 65 other firefighters with the state Department of Natural Resources battled steep terrain, falling ash and heavy smoke to keep the fire from spreading. Their main goal was to stop the blaze from spreading south toward houses, but they also were working to minimize the damage to the forest green backdrop of the Columbia River Gorge.
“The goal is to keep the fire in the footprint that it’s already in,” said DNR spokeswoman Nancy Marvin.
While crews on the ground worked to hold the fire’s perimeter and crews in the air poured water from helicopters, the wind was the real safety assistant, moving the fire north and east away from homes.
Officials downgraded an evacuation order for some Skamania County residents who had previously been told to leave their houses.
Residents on Smith Cripe Road and a series of private roads that feed into the county roadway were downgraded to a Level 2 (be ready to go) evacuation notice. Evacuation orders for those living on Mabee Mines Road and on private roads connecting to it were downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1 (be aware/get ready).
About 40 houses on Franz Road and Archer Mountain Road, near where firefighters are working, remained threatened by the fire, and the area is still under Level 3 (go now) evacuation orders.
And even though the wind helped move the fire away from homes, officials are keeping a close eye on whether that shifts, threatening firefighters’ progress.
“We’re monitoring (the fire’s) movement with the west winds coming in to see if it’s going to jump our lines,” Skamania County Undersheriff Pat Bond said. “So far it hasn’t, but we’re hoping for the best.”
While the size of the Washington wildfire tripled overnight Tuesday, the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon also intensified, merging with the Indian Creek fires and burning 30,929 acres.
More than 600 firefighters are working to put lines around the fire and protect the infrastructure in the area.
The Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1925, was saved by firefighters.
Both Oregon and Washington fires remain zero percent contained.
Shelter numbers grow
The American Red Cross opened a shelter for evacuees at the Skamania County Fairgrounds in Stevenson, which is serving about 175 people staying in tents, RVs, cars and on cots inside the facility.
Most of those staying at the shelter live in Cascade Locks, Ore., just across the river. But on Tuesday, after the Archer Mountain Fire forced residents from their homes, the shelter’s population grew by 25 percent, Red Cross officials said.
And since the shelter opened its doors, the town of Stevenson flooded the fairgrounds with donations including water, food and pet supplies.
“If we were on fire, they’d do the same thing,” said 30-year-old Rondi Conn, who lives down the street in Stevenson.
Conn has spent long hours running the large barn at the fairgrounds which currently houses pets including cats, dogs, chickens and a goat named Pear. Conn grew up on a farm, so she knows how important these animals are to their owners and can see the appreciation on the faces of evacuees.
“You can see some of the stress just melt away,” she said. “It’s nice knowing we’re giving them some peace.”
Conn said the outpouring of donations has been heartwarming, but now when people ask what they need, she answers, “at this point? Rain.”
Other fires in state
North of the Gorge, the East Crater Fire is burning roughly 1,000 acres in a relatively remote part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, west of Trout Lake. According to a recent update from the U.S. Forest Service, dense smoke from the Eagle Creek Fire shaded the East Crater Fire and effectively put a cap on it.
While the same smoke has made it challenging for crews, observations show the fire recently moved north and east into a meadow area and slowed down.
The Indian Heaven Wilderness, nearby campsites and a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed due to the fire. It was first reported by a hiker on Sunday morning.
Three miles north of Carson, Bear Creek Fire is burning in roughly 25 acres of steep terrain in the Bear Creek Watershed, which serves small community.
Ground crews and a helicopter dropping water have worked to slow the fire’s progress and crews are “cautiously optimistic” they will continue a strong momentum in building fire lines to control the blaze.
Residents living along Bear Creek Road and Borden Road remain on a Level 1 evacuation notice, officials said.
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