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Town Mostly Spared As Crews Battle Oregon Fire

Scores of people evacuate the community on the Columbia River as firefighters beat back flames. Miles of interstate are shut down.

September 03, 2003|From Associated Press

CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. — A wildfire raged down the Columbia River Gorge and burned into this small tourist town Tuesday, forcing scores of people from their homes and closing a 47-mile stretch of Interstate 84.

But quick action by several hundred firefighters largely spared this community of about 1,140 that sits between the Columbia River and the imposing cliffs of the river gorge about 40 miles east of Portland.

A former bed and breakfast, called Shahala At The Locks, and an abandoned house and barn were the only buildings destroyed despite flames that licked at underbrush just feet from dozens of homes.

Alarm had mounted through the afternoon as the Herman Creek fire, which began in dry brush beside Interstate 84, approached the town, billowing smoke and creeping up the steep gorge walls.

Residents affixed sprinklers to the roofs of their houses to ward off flames.

Resident Marty Pearson's face was streaked with ash as he returned in his pickup truck from helping a friend place sprinklers and clear a fire break Tuesday afternoon. His wife, seven months' pregnant, had left town earlier, but Pearson said he would watch over their house.

"I was going to put a new roof on next summer," he said. "If my house burns down now, I'll just have to build a new house altogether."

Two helicopters dipping water from the river and three aerial tankers bombarded the fire with water and retardant.

In an effort to get more water to the flames, fire officials diverted a source of nonpotable water into the city pipes, and warned residents to boil water before drinking it.

By evening, 200 or so homes had been evacuated, said city administrator Bob Willoughby. Residents were being kept away until firefighters finished putting out hot spots.

Erik Toristoja, 53, said state troopers knocked on his door around 4 p.m. and told him to leave. He grabbed financial papers, pictures and his cat, Camie.

"I'm kind of thinking I should have brought a backpack and a tent," he said. Of his cat, crammed in a carrying case in his hot car, Toristoja said, "she's not taking it very well."

The Red Cross said about 46 evacuees made it across the Columbia to a temporary shelter in Stevenson, Wash.

Another 35 people and their pets had gathered in the gymnasium of Cascade Locks School, said Principal Chris Daniels.

The fire may have been started by a power line problem, fire spokesman Jamie Karn said.

Union Pacific Railroad stopped trains along the southern bank of the river because some railroad ties were burning, Nichols said.

The fire caused serious traffic tie-ups as far away as Portland. Cars leaving the city were temporarily rerouted along a two-lane, windy road on the Washington state border.

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