Students narrowly escape Eagle Creek fire

By Dora Totoian | September 3, 2017 10:38pm

Video submitted by Julius Chong.

A group of students narrowly escaped the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge on Saturday.  Ben Barretto, Julius Chong, Zach Ling, Jake Gruber and Cameron Wong hiked along the trail to Punchbowl Falls at 2 p.m. and saw smoke on the way down. 

Had they waited just a few minutes longer before heading back to the trailhead, they might have been stranded overnight along with more than 150 other hikers, who were rescued Sunday afternoon.

The fire, which broke out about 50 miles east of Portland Saturday and has burned  more than 3200 acres so far, was human-caused and involved fireworks, according to Oregon State Police.

The students didn’t suspect anything as they hiked towards the waterfall, and said the trail appeared normal during the first half of their hike. On the way down though, Chong said he recalls feeling unreasonably hot. They rounded a corner on the trail and saw the smoke plume rising rapidly. They then saw small ashes begin to coat the trail. 

“We looked down, it was off a cliff, and we saw smoke rising extremely fast to the point where we deemed, it was not safe to stay. We actually ran,” Chong said. “When we turned around, we noticed that the fire jumped onto the trail. Anyone behind us could not have passed the trail anymore.” 

The students were among the last to evacuate, and more than 150 hikers were stranded on the trail overnight. A suspect has been identified in starting the fire, which has burned almost five square miles, according to Oregon State Police. 

Ling observed that on the way down, the wildfire sounded similar to a campfire — they could hear crackling. Still, when they returned to the parking lot, people continued to start on the trail, Barretto said. 

“If we’d left five minutes later, we would have been on the other side of the fire,” Gruber said. 

 Steven Kolmes, chair of The Environmental Science Department, advised students to check the air quality index (AQI) if there appears to be smoke in the air. 

The National Weather Service warned of "hazardous weather conditions" in Portland, as of Monday at 11 a.m., with "widespread" smoke and daytime temperatures expected to exceed 100 degrees.