PORTLAND – Rick Buck could feel the fire coming.
Winds swirled like little tornados just yards from the Multnomah Falls Lodge. The air alternated between hot and cold. Thick smoke boiled in, burning his eyes.
Buck, the proprietor of the historic 1925 building, felt helpless.
“I just said to myself, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” he recalled.
Soon, flames ripped across the ridge at the top of the falls. They swept down the hillside and raced toward the squat stone structure with a wooden roof.
Trees fell. Temperatures surged. And firefighters had their marching orders: Protect the lodge.
It was an exhausting overnight firefight, but the building emerged unscathed – cedar shakes and all.
“Multnomah Lodge is the icon of Oregon,” said Lance Lighty, a Eugene Springfield Fire battalion chief called in to help manage the blaze. “We didn’t want Oregon to lose that. And we weren’t going to let the fire win on this one.”
The wildfire started Sept. 2 along the Eagle Creek Trail, but it took off two nights later, whipped by winds that pushed it hard and fast toward the falls, about 12 miles west in the gorge.
The Eagle Creek fire now covers 48,387 acres and has prompted evacuations and the longest shutdown in recent memory of Interstate 84 between Hood River and Troutdale – an area often closed in spurts when winter storms hit.
Although most people have returned home and the freeway’s westbound lanes opened Thursday, the fire continues to burn and is 32 percent contained.
Lighty had already had a wild Labor Day.
He had helped make the call that holiday Monday to shut down the interstate in both directions, working with the Oregon Department of Transportation. He had watched 30 mph-plus gusts shift and drive flames and smoke through the dense forest parched by a rainless summer.
Now the fire was making a beeline for Oregon’s highest waterfall and its namesake lodge, among the state’s most revered destinations and backdrops for countless family vacations. A top tourist attraction, Multnomah Falls gets an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million visitors a year.
Lighty and his colleagues knew they would need plenty of firefighters and a way to douse the lodge roof and the surrounding area from above.
The fire was traveling so fast over the steep slopes of the Columbia River Gorge that it was too late to try to remove brush, cut down trees and dig trenches to keep the flames away. Water was the only defense.
It was around 10 p.m. that night when Lighty and other fire managers called for a Portland ladder truck and four fire engines. They also commissioned five water tenders from fire departments in Forest Grove, Gaston, Tualatin Valley and Hillsboro.
The crews rushed to the gorge and set up at the base of the falls. That’s where they stayed well into the next day.
Use the ladder truck as a sprinkler, wetting down the lodge’s roof and everything within about 30 to 40 yards: a footpath, the lodge’s back patio, a 500-gallon propane tank, vegetation and other nearby structures.
Do the same with fire hoses. Draw water from a nearby creek and keep the tenders – or water tankers with pumps and hoses – as extra reservoirs.
Some crews began by helping lodge workers remove historic photographs, furniture, paintings, money and other valuables from the building and load them into vehicles. Some moved outdoor furniture and supplies inside. Other crews set up hoses and started to spray down the roof and foliage.
By midnight, the flames had wrapped around the waterfall, lighting up the ridge like a glowing horseshoe with the 620-foot falls gushing through the middle. In the next several hours, the flames marched relentlessly toward the lodge and the firefighters kept the hoses turned on the line.
The blaze eventually surrounded the lodge on three sides. It burned down to the sprinkler perimeter by about 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.
The line held. But flames still burned on the hillside above, so firefighters kept pouring water on the periphery to stop hot debris from rolling downhill or embers from flying onto the roof.
By late Tuesday evening, the worst was over, yet firefighters would have to water down the lodge and surroundings through the following Thursday to make sure their handiwork endured as they dodged falling rocks and trees from the cliffs and hillside around the falls.
A fire engine remains at the scene just in case.
“They did save the lodge. No doubt,” said Buck, who left the scene in his SUV with paperwork and other valuables in tow before the flames grew down to the lodge. “If they were not there fighting that fire there would be no lodge. Period.”
The scene now
Gone are the swarms of snapshot-seeking tourists at the foot of Multnomah Falls. The hordes of hikers are nowhere to be seen. There are no diners in the lodge. No fight for parking.
But the falls don’t need an audience. They continue to roar.
The carnage isn’t apparent to a casual onlooker. The falls still cascade into the gorge, streaming under the picturesque Benson Bridge and toward the Columbia. The basin remains lush with trees and other greenery. The lodge looks the same.
The falls – two steps of 542 feet and 69 feet with a 9-foot decline in between – have clearly retained their splendor.
But the area isn’t unmarked. The fire scorched some trees. The wooden pedestrian bridge that leads up to the famed Benson Bridge burned. Small ash piles have settled in the lodge’s gift shop and the smell of smoke hangs throughout the building.
Crews haven’t had the chance to evaluate damage to trails above the falls. It remains unknown when exactly the public will be allowed to return.
Buck, who was forced to lay off 50-plus people because of the fire, doesn’t have a reopening date. The lodge’s last day was the Monday of the firefight, when they worked a busy day cut short by an evacuation notice.
“One of the biggest fears is we don’t want to reopen too soon when there are still hazards,” said Stephen Baker, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, owner of the land and lodge. “That is such a popular area so many people visit that we want to make sure that when we do open, we know it’s safe.”
The firefighters have done their part.
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