Everyone wants to help rebuild Columbia River Gorge (but it's not time yet)

September 14, 2017, 7:53 a.m.
Looking west at the Eagle Creek Fire in Columbia Gorge from Stevenson, Washington
Photo: Tristan Fortsch/Instagram

Just before Labor Day, a fire started in the Eagle Creek area of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. Allegedly sparked by teenagers playing with fireworks, the fire has burned more than 10,000 acres so far and is still active.

As images and stories of the fire spread, heartbroken locals reached out, wanting to help rebuild their natural treasure.

"Million of people go there. People grow up picnicking in the gorge, swimming there, people propose there, it's really embedded in the culture of the northwest," Friends of the Columbia Gorge Conservation Director Michael Lang tells MNN. "When they hear about the smoke or fire, it hits them really hard and they want to rush to their loved one and help."

In the first two days after the fires, the group had 1 million hits on its Facebook page and fielded about an email a minute from people wanting to volunteer.

"The response is overwhelming," Lang says. "But it's not the time for people to grab their shovels and tree saplings and start replanting."

The group is urging people to stay out of the gorge until fires are extinguished and the smoke clears. There are serious concerns about falling trees and eventual landslides and rockslides, especially when the fall rains start.

"There are public agencies that are responsible for managing these lands," Lang says. "We'll have to work with them and let them take the lead on what the best ecological response is."

Because the fire jumped, it's not a devastated landscape. There are partially burned areas, green areas and areas that have completely burned. "It's a real mosaic," he says.

Although it's difficult to guess when rebuilding might start, Lang imagines it will be spring before volunteers' boots on the ground make sense. Even then, the restoration will take months, probably years. The biggest concern, he says, is making sure opportunistic invasive species don't move in and crowd out native plants.

Lang suggests people can best help now by donating to first responders and signing up to volunteer when the time is right. There are spots to do both on the Friends of Columbia Gorge website.

"We're really moved by the outpouring of love and affection, but please be patient," he says.

The good news is that nature heals, Lang says. "If anything, the gorge is very resilient. It's seen its cataclysms and we have no doubt it will recover, but it will need our help."

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