Across the Pacific Northwest in 2017, 10 major fires burned on or near the Pacific Crest Trail. Nearly 300 miles of the PCT were closed that summer and fall.
But one wildfire that swept through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area lit a spark of a different kind by inspiring hundreds of new volunteers to offer their time and money to take care of a place they truly love.
The scenic area is one of the most treasured places in the Pacific Northwest and the Eagle Creek Fire burned 49,000 acres of it, including 10 miles of the PCT and 90 miles of other trails. In nearby Portland, Oregon, and in neighboring cities and towns, emotions boiled over. The fire hit people hard. They watched the flames, smelled the smoke and swept the ash from their cars and porches, all the while imagining the worst. The fact that the fire was caused by someone being careless with fireworks made it all the sadder and more frustrating.
As the duff covered PCT falls from the southwestern flank of Mount Hood into the Gorge, it meanders past churning streams, rumbling waterfalls and stands of tall firs. It’s simply beautiful. Yet many PCT hikers opt for the popular Eagle Creek Trail because of its iconic moss-covered cliffs, deep clear pools and even more amazing waterfalls. Sadly, the fire burned at such high intensity here that the landscape remains unstable and the trail remains closed. (May 2020)
The immediate outpouring of support for the PCT and other Gorge trails was amazing. The Pacific Crest Trail Association’s volunteers were eager to act, and they started planning for the recovery work while the fires were still burning. The PCTA, Trailkeepers of Oregon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Washington Trails Association formed the Gorge Trails Recovery Team to tap into the emotional energy of local residents who were clamoring for the opportunity to do something, anything, to help.
Through a grant from the National Forest Foundation, the PCTA hired trail expert Max Martin to lead crews in the Gorge. Hundreds of new volunteers stepped forward to assist in the trail rehabilitation efforts. Over hundreds of hours, the Gorge Trails Recovery Team held dozens of trainings for new volunteers, both in classrooms and field sessions. Then these teams put in thousands of hours to stabilize hillsides, remove unsafe or fallen trees and restore trails throughout the gorge.
Thankfully, the gorge is recovering, proof of Mother Nature’s magical resilience. Only 25 percent of the gorge was in the burn area and, thankfully, less than a quarter of that burned at a high intensity. Many trails and special landscapes remain unscathed while others have been transformed, as the fires opened areas for wildlife, massive wildflower blooms and new broad views of the Columbia River and the Cascades.
Mark Larabee is the PCTA’s Associate Director of Communications and Advocacy. For more information about The Pacific Crest Trail Association and opportunities to volunteer on the trail, visit www.pcta.org.