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They were wearing flip-flops and bathing suits after a short 1.9 mile hike in and a Saturday spent cooling off in the Columbia River Gorge’s Punchbowl Falls. But the bang of a firecracker in the lush but dry forest turned Labor Day weekend into a hellish survival story for 150 hikers.
The Eagle Creek Trail is one of the Gorge’s most popular hikes, located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River near the town of Cascade Locks. Beyond Punchbowl Falls, the trail is a well-worn backpacking route to Tunnel Falls and eventually Wahntum Lake, deep in Mount Hood National Forest. It wasn’t unusual to have so many visitors at Punchbowl Falls last Saturday around 4:30 p.m when one hiker watched a group of teenagers allegedly tossing fireworks over a nearby cliff. Soon after, the forest began to burn. (Oregon State Police said that the 15-year-old suspect had been found and was cooperating with the investigation.)
By the time the dry mosses and pines had fully erupted, 150 hikers were still at Punchbowl, now cut off from the trailhead by a steadily growing blaze. One hiker found a cell phone signal, and rescue helicopter was able to drop a crude note tied to a rock: “Stay put. We see you. Danger.” Eventually another note gave the group directions to head in the other direction toward Wahntum Lake, some 14 miles away.
By 10 p.m., they were met by a Forest Service ranger who hiked in from the other side. As ash and embers flew overhead, igniting secondary blazes around them, they hiked through the night to just past Tunnel Falls, where they bedded down until morning.
Most of the hikers, who had planned on a short day trip, had no extra food or snacks, let alone overnight supplies, until roughly 3 a.m. when a group of firefighters arrived on scene. By first light on Sunday, they were moving again, heading the 11 miles to awaiting busses. The first groups began shuffling out of the woods around 10 a.m., with the last loading onto busses after 1 p.m.
According to the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, all hikers were accounted for and only one was taken to the hospital, for non-critical exhaustion and dehydration. The remainder were reunited with their families after the drive back to their original trailhead.
By Wednesday morning, the Eagle Creek fire had merged with the nearby Indian Creek fire and grown to over 30,000 acres along the Columbia River, from near Crown Point to Cascade Locks. Embers carried by the strong gorge winds also crossed the river, igniting smaller blazes on the Washington side. Officially, it is zero percent contained.
Popular Multnomah Falls is at risk and roughly 45 trails and 9 campgrounds in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Mount Hood National Forest have been closed due to the fire. Meanwhile, residents in Portland—roughly 40 miles from Cascade Locks—have reported ash and debris falling continuously since Monday.