Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

The Columbia River, with the Bridge of the Gods in the background, as seen from Cascade Locks on July 24, 2017.

I started my 500 mile trek across the state of Washington in the town of Cascade Locks. The day before my hike, a certain wonderful person (you know who you are) gave me a ride from Portland through the Columbia River Gorge, visiting several of the famous waterfalls. On day one of my hike, I traversed the Bridge of the Gods on foot, crossing the threshold into Washington. At the time, I was thinking about the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, and how nice it would be to see more of the waterfalls on another trip to Oregon.

One of the many fantastic waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge.

I had no idea that, less than two months later, the town of Cascade Locks would be evacuated, the Bridge of the Gods would be shut down, and the Columbia River Gorge would go up in flames. As that same wonderful friend said when I saw her again in Portland this week “I’m so glad I took you to see the Columbia River Gorge when I did. It will never look the same again in our lifetimes.”

My tent in Cascade Locks on July 24, 2017. I slept in a tent because I didn’t want to pay for a motel room, but now some residents of Cascade Locks are sleeping in tents because of the evacuation order.

Over a hundred hikers had to be evacuated around Cascade Locks. Most were day hikers or weekend hikers, but some were long-distance Pacific Crest Trail hikers – and I’ve read that some PCT hikers from Germany who did not have anywhere to go in the United States stayed in the same evacuation shelter as the displaced locals. If my luck and timing were different, I might have been one of the hikers who needed evacuated.

This is a photo I took of the Bridge of the Gods on July 25, 2017.

The photos of Cascade Locks from the past week feel very surreal to me. You can see an example of such a photo here.

At this point, it is not known whether or not the town will be burned down. Right now the fire is slowing down and containment is increasing (as of the time of writing), but conditions could turn for the worse. The extent of the damage of the fire is also still unknown because it’s too dangerous to investigate, though one article says that firefighters need snow plows to get through the debris on the road.

Fire is a completely ordinary part of the ecosystem in much of Oregon – but fires of this scale are not an ordinary part of the ecosystem in the Columbia River Gorge. This fire was only able to grow so big and so fast because this has been an exceptionally warm and dry summer in the Pacific Northwest. These warmer and drier summers are most likely part of broader changes in the climate, some of which have been caused by putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And this is just the prelude of climate change. If this is the prelude, I don’t want to see the climax, but I also know it’s inevitable because we have failed to prevent climate change (it’s already here) and we refuse to take the actions which would slow it down. Therefore, we are going to have to take climate change as it comes, whether we like it or not. Here is a good essay about climate change and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Looking towards the Diamond Creek fire from Lakeview Ridge on August 28, 2017.

And there are much bigger fires raging across the Pacific Northwest right now. The fire around Cascade Locks is the highest priority because it is an immediate threat to a town, but out in the wildernesses of Oregon and Washington there are much bigger blazes. The Diamond Creek fire – which I had to pass – is about three times bigger. For weeks, I was wondering if the Diamond Creek fire would force me off trail, but the Pacific Crest Trail stayed open. The trail is still open as of the time of writing, but they just closed the Hart’s Pass road because of the fire. That’s a big deal, because the Hart’s Pass road is the only road access to the Pacific Crest Trail between Rainy Pass and Manning Park, and the best escape route beyond Rainy Pass if anything goes seriously wrong. There were a lot of people at Hart’s Pass when I passed through, and a lot of them needed that road. Furthermore, all of the escape routes east of the Pacific Crest Trail north of Rainy Pass are now closed because of the fire, and all of the escape routes to the west are long and difficult. On top of that, many hikers cannot legally enter Canada, so if they are forced off the trail because of the fire, they might have to hike over 50 miles (possibly over very difficult trail) to get out of the woods (or they could enter Canada illegally). Worst of all, the Diamond Creek fire is getting so big that the town of Mazama is under evacuation notice – the residents are not required to leave yet, but they may be required to leave at any time.

I did not go to Mazama, but I did camp next to the Methow River (the river is under the bridge in the photo) which eventually flows to Mazama.

Even though Diamond Creek fire was not a direct threat when I went through Paysaten, and the Hart’s Pass road was still open, I definitely inhaled some smoke from that fire. Coincidently, the Diamond Creek fire crossed the border into Canada on the same day I did, so it’s now burning in both Washington and British Columbia – and since it was already the worst fire season in British Columbia history, they really did not need to import a fire from the USA.

Look at all of that haze generated by the Diamond Creek fire (photo taken at Lakeview Ridge on August 28, 2017).

However, after the worst is over … there will be a recovery. It may not be a full recovery, and some things will be lost forever. Nonetheless, there will be some kind of recovery. My hometown, San Francisco, was notoriously destroyed by a fire and it recovered – eventually.

This was the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle AND San Francisco Examiner on April 19, 1906. It had to be printed in Oakland because all of the newspaper printing presses in San Francisco had been destroyed. You can read the article here.

I will end this with a picture from the Mt. Adams wilderness. The area around Mt. Adams burned in 2015. It’s still an obviously scorched area. And now that all of the tall trees are dead, there in an abundance of sunlight which is allowing the wild flowers to explode with growth and color. Meanwhile, there are many saplings which will, in time, restore the forest. Since the Columbia River Gorge has a very different environment from Mt. Adams, the fire there is not going to have the same effect. Still, even though something wonderful and special is being lost, and no doubt some people’s lives are going to be ruined, perhaps there will be a silver lining.

Wildflowers growing in a forest which burned in 2015.

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