Here in the Pacific Northwest, it almost goes without saying that we do love our outdoor spaces. The beauty, the recreation, the abundant fertility and the views are all enjoyed every day by so many folks. The natural beauty around every corner is one of the main attractions to living in this area, not to mention for photographers the immense amount of subject matter available to photograph.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, there was (still is as of this writing) a fire in the Columbia River Gorge natural scenic area. This fire was started by kids lighting fireworks in the Eagle Creek area and it has burned over 38,000 acres so far. This has been a huge event for the area and has taken up much of the public mindspace since it started.
When it first erupted, social media was dominated by the news (in the ensuing couple of weeks, the furor has died down a bit). Like every photographer in the area (and afar), I was saddened by the news that such a devastating event was happening to a place I know intimately and love deeply. The Gorge is truly a wonder of beauty and I have felt so blessed to live close by and shoot it whenever I want, in all of the seasons of the year.
Instead of writing a “me too” opinion about the devastation, I would like to offer some commentary that is not quite as mainstream. During the first week of the fire, the general sentiment from everyone seemed to be about the “loss” of the ecosystem, the “loss” of the gorge, etc. This concept of “loss” is what struck me the most about all of the commentary. What struck me the most about these comments is how short sighted they were. People were decreeing that we “lost” them forever, or “lost” it “in my lifetime”, etc. Very dramatic stuff!
We didn’t “lose” the Columbia River Gorge. We didn’t “lose” Multnomah Falls (it’s still flowing btw). We didn’t “lose” the rolling hills or steep drop offs. Punchbowl Falls in the Eagle Creek area, where the fire started, is still there and flowing normally. No, we didn’t “lose” any of these features we’ve come to love as our own. I will concede that what we might have “lost” is the way things were in these areas, or we lost some experience that we were supposed to have in a verdant forest. But these are all self-serving losses, about what “we” or “I” wanted in the Gorge.
As we all know, fire is a natural phenomenon in nature and in fact it’s extremely healthy for the forest ecosystem. It’s through fire that the forest can be cleansed of deadfall and cleaned up. Fire also triggers plant and tree growth that normally won’t occur without extreme heat. Fire is a good thing for the long term health of our forests. Our forest service practices in this country have evolved over the years in an effort to support the forests and the people who use them. For many years we sought to extinguish fires as fast as possible to “save” the forest. Noble efforts for sure, based on our understanding of the time. What we’ve learned since is that that practice was not the best thing we could have done. It allowed a build of of dead matter on the forest floor, choking off the natural cycle and building up stores of fuel so when a fire happened, it was much larger than it normally should have been due to all of the readily available fuel that had built up over the years. We’ve had numerous fires in the Columbia River Gorge over the years, even some right on top of Multnomah Falls. You wouldn’t have known it by casually exploring the area! Almost all signs of that fire are invisible,that’s how resilient and adaptable and repairable our forests are,
Yes we lost some trees and we lost some plants, we lost our mental model of a picture perfect recreation area all green and lush….all true. But guess what, trees will grow back, plants will grow back, the animals will quickly come back in to the area and the Gorge will be back to a lush, green, and healthy, ecosystem in no time at all.
I may sound cynical or negative about the events, but trust me I’ve been incredibly impacted with what’s happened. For me though, I quickly turned to taking a longer term view of what happened and tried to find the positives in the situation. We can’t go back and change what happened, so lets adapt to the new reality in the Gorge and look at the positive signs. The forest will be healthier and the trails will be reopened for us to go explore the region. The waterfalls are still there for us to photograph. Multnomah Lodge was saved thanks to the firefighters for us to get a hot cup of coffee on a cold fall morning. How many people have ever had an up close and personal walk through a fire damaged forest? Thinks of what you might see, the cool new experiences you could have. Think about how we get the opportunity to watch the forest restore itself over the coming years. Living in the PNW at the time Mt St Helens blew, I’ve had the wonderful chance to watch how that ecosystem has come back and been restored from an event that was many times more devastating than the Gorge fires. It really is a blessing to watch nature in action, watch how it heals and takes care of itself.
Things are not the same as they were in the Gorge and we have to be OK with that. it’s normal and natural. It’s a new chapter in the eons that have passed and we are here to witness the turning of a page in the wonderful book that is the Columbia River Gorge.
Vista House from the Womens Forum
Multnomah Falls in Winter
Ice Sculptures built up near Horsetail Falls