The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a gorgeous canyon just east of Portland, Oregon. It follows the river some 80 miles through the Cascade Mountains along the Washington–Oregon state line, offering countless scenic vistas and hiking trails. The gorge also boasts 800 wildflower species and at least 70 waterfalls, including the famous 600-foot Multnomah Falls. But this week, the canyon was in flames.
Portland photographer Tristan Fortsch captured this dramatic image of the blaze along the Columbia River late Monday night, as what’s being called the Eagle Creek Fire rapidly spread over 3,000 acres. For Fortsch and many Oregonians who grew up hiking in the region, the sight was heart-wrenching. “It’s overwhelming to see something you love up in flames,” he says.
The fire began on Saturday when a teenager allegedly set off fireworks in the heart of the gorge. Due to strong winds and unusually dry conditions in the area, the fire merged with another wildfire called the Indian Creek Fire on Wednesday, devouring more than 30,000 acres. Hundreds of firefighters poured in to combat the blaze, locals evacuated, and ash rained down for miles around. It’s just one of 853 wildfires in Oregon this year.
Fortsch works as a digital content producer at a local television station in Portland and was slammed all weekend covering the fire. He finally got off on Monday night and decided to check out the fire firsthand. The major route to the gorge along I-84 was blocked, so Fortsch and a reporter drove down the two-lane Evergreen Highway on the Washington side of the river. Around 11 pm, they pulled up to a private dock along the river with a view of the opposite shore in flames. Covering his face with a bandana, Fortsch walked out 20 feet to the edge of the dock and snapped a photo with his Nikon D800E and 70–200mm lens. It felt like the whole Earth was ablaze.
“There was a dull roar from the flames that mixed with the usual gorge wind,” Fortsch says. “The flare-ups were eerie too. There is a dim glow coming across the water, but these huge flames would erupt through the trees and light everything up.”
The image looks like an inferno with the dark silhouette of a boat in the foreground and a mountain of fire beyond. Despite the grim scene, authorities announced today that 5 percent of the fire is contained and several of the gorge’s most beautiful spots, including Multnomah Falls, are relatively untouched. For Forstch, it’s hopeful news. “There’s a chance we can go hiking sooner rather than later,” he says.