Labor of love: Firefighters hit trails to restore Columbia River - KPTV - FOX 12

Labor of love: Firefighters hit trails to restore Columbia River Gorge after Eagle Creek Fire

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COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OR (KPTV) -

A crashing sound echoed through the waterfall’s dull roar on a rainy Thursday morning, at the Wahkeena Falls trailhead.

From the parking lot, the Eagle Creek Fire’s damage isn’t readily obvious – but firefighters deeper in the switchbacks have their work cut out along the trail.

“We’re just flipping rocks,” said Dawn Stender, a trail crew supervisor with the Forest Service’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. “It’s not rocket science, this piece of it. It’s just a little bit dangerous, definitely exhausting work.”

Rock slides cover the trail and many others in the Columbia River Gorge, keeping popular hikes closed as crews and volunteers assess damage, cleanup and restore trails seven months after the devastating, human-caused fire broke out.

FOX 12 tagged along as the team of five Forest Service firefighters put in the grunt work: Using pickaxes, and often their hands to lift and move rocks blocking the trail.

“At this point we’re doing less of that fine trail work and more just clearing rock and clearing debris off the trails,” Stender said.

It’s not their first time working at the location in recent weeks.

Often, crews will do an initial sweep of the trail to address the most dangerous hazards before going back through to clear debris and perfect the trail.

Moving dead trees and snags is the easy part, according to crews, and it’s the lack of vegetation and loose soil making the steep hillsides along the trails vulnerable and dangerous.

“It’s going to be hard to go through and really make sure the entire network is safe for the public,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Rachel Pawlitz.

All trails in the burn area under the Forest Service’s jurisdiction remain closed, but crews have made good progress to restore just under 10 percent of them. Nearly half of the trails have been assessed for future repair work.

Despite the grueling conditions, Stender said she loves her job and the visual reward afterward.

“After a hard day’s work, it’s nice to look back and say there’s a gorgeous trail behind us,” Stender said. “It’s exhausting, but I think we’re all really passionate about it and just as excited as anyone else to get the trails back open too.”

And it’s not just the manpower from the Forest Service crews – volunteer groups have flocked to help out, many of them also taking on the trails.

Pawlitz said gorge organizations reported that thousands of people signed up to volunteer immediately after the fire.

Crews said it would take much longer to reopen popular attractions and trails without them.

The lower viewing area of Multnomah Falls reopened to visitors March 19.

The Forest Service hopes to reopen trails east of Cascade Locks by Summer and trails areas West of Multnomah Falls by the end of the year.

Some trails will remain closed for years, and might need significant rerouting through heavily damaged areas.

Because of the closures in Oregon, trails on the Washington side of the Gorge are experiencing heavy traffic and full parking lots.
Pawlitz suggested hikers looking for a less-crowded trail experience should consider:

  • Sams Walker Loop
  • St. Cloud Trail
  • Balfour-Klickitat Loop Trail
  • Catherine Creek Trail

The Forest Service is sharing updates on trail work and Gorge here: facebook.com/EagleCreekFire2017

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