GORGE smoke poor freeway visibility.JPG

Smoke chokes I-84 at Hood River Monday. Visibility was poor all over the region due to numerous wildfires in Oregon and Washington.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced Friday it is extending the closure of all of the lands it manages east of the Cascades to recreation due to high fire danger through Sept. 17. DNR staff this week will evaluate the possibility of extending the closure, enacted Tuesday.

The 12,000-acre Big Hollow Fire is currently burning east and north of the Trapper Creek Wilderness on the Mt. Adams Ranger District, 15 miles northwest of Carson in Skamania County, according to Gifford Pinchot National Forest officials. The fire started on Sept. 8, cause unknown, and fire officials gave an Oct. 10 estimated containment date. Fuels are timber litter and understory, grass and logging slash. Recreation areas in Gifford Pinchot are closed.

Hood River County has issued a temporary full closure of county forest lands due to extreme fire danger and the shortage of firefighting resources in the region. The closure includes the county forest, forest roads and recreational trails until further notice, citing extreme fire risk, weather and wind events, plus a dangerous lack of resources.

For the Gorge, the National Weather Service is predicting some relief from the smoke by Wednesday.

Local partners provided evacuation sites for people getting away from western Oregon fires, as well as masks and other supplies to unhoused residents, according to Barb Ayers, Hood River County Emergency Services director. Hood River County and Hood River Shelter Services worked with local grocery stores to serve as distribution points for about 100 masks. “We were really concerned for people without a place, in this smoke,” Ayers said.

With orchardists concerned about their workers’ health, Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers distributed hundreds of KN-95 masks over the weekend to orchardists to help workers picking fruit in the smoke. Mike Doke, Fruit Growers’ executive director, noted that the measure comes on the heels of extra steps already taken due to COVID-19.

Critical wildfire danger and ongoing fires in the area warranted the extension of the DNR closure, as Labor Day saw a rash of new fires ignite statewide.

Meanwhile, Hood River County Board of Commissioners closed all its lands to recreation, in a special meeting Friday. For updates on fires, smoky conditions or evacuation orders, visit GetReadyGorge.com or find updates on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, facebook.com/hrcso.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the elected official who oversees DNR, said, “Hundreds of thousands of acres of land have burned since Monday, and our resources are fully deployed. But we cannot risk having more human-caused fires right now. I know how important hunting season is to so many Washingtonians, but we are in the middle of a historic wildfire event.”

The below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures regions is forecast to continue, with the hot and dry weather further extending the risk of large wildfires. With no lightning this week or in the forecast for the next few days, the majority of wildfires DNR is responding to are presumed to be human-caused. The agency has responded to more than 100 fires caused by recreation this year. DNR will announce the reopening of lands when it again becomes safe.

Over the weekend, Port of Hood River opened up several of its parking lots for anyone needing refuge, and set up sanitation stations. The Hood River County Fairgrounds and one local church also made space available.

“We asked them to set up like we did with Eagle Creek (2017) with porta potties and handwashing,” at a total of nine evacuation sites, according to Ayers.

The church became a place of refuge for 17 families, including two with infants. At least six campers stayed on port property Saturday but as many as 15 people were there Thursday night. At the fairgrounds, 17 people and 18 horses came to stay the weekend, with some remaining Monday.

“We try to have the key partners do their thing, and support them as much as we can,” Ayers said, adding that while the local partners worked together to prepare, “we thought we would get inundated” at evacuation sites. But we didn’t see quite as many as we thought we would, which is a good thing, as there were probably quite a few (evacuation sites) in the metro area, and for a lot of people they want to be in safest place possible and as close as possible to their homes, so perhaps they would have found that without driving an extra hour out to the Gorge,” Ayers said.

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