Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann expected scorched earth.
What she saw was very different.
"The Gorge is still there, and it's still beautiful," Stegmann said, just moments after stepping out of the county patrol unit that had carried her past Multnomah Falls and as far east as Warrendale on Interstate 84. Along the way, she got a roadside look at the damage caused by the Eagle Creek Fire. "It's not scorched earth. I feel a lot more relieved. I feel a lot better."
The fire began over the Labor Day Weekend, allegedly started by a group of teenagers carelessly playing with fireworks along the heavily traveled Eagle Creek Trail. Hot, dry and windy conditions, coupled with the remote nature of the blaze, allowed the fire to quickly spread to the west, threatening the Multnomah Falls Lodge along its path. As of Wednesday morning, the fire had consumed more than 30,000 acres.
Stegmann's tour up the Gorge on Wednesday morning stopped at Multnomah Falls, where she met up with firefighters on the front lines in an effort to prevent flames from destroying the iconic stone-and-timber Cascadian-style lodge, which was built in 1925.
"These guys really are heroes," Stegmann said of the 30 firefighters who held flames at bay just 50 feet from the lodge. "The lodge is still there. The falls are there. The trees are still there."
She also was impressed by the show of support that came from firefighters from throughout the region, including crews from Gresham, Portland, Port of Portland, Forest Grove, Tualatin Valley, Philomath, Albany, Sweet Home, Corvallis and Hillsboro.
"It's heartening to see (all of these) jurisdictions coming together to protect one of our most precious resources," she said.
But Stegmann, who was elected to her first term on the County Board of Commissioner in November 2016, said the character of the Gorge will be changed for years — if not decades — to come; not ruined, just different.
She described a sporadic view of charred trees and blackened ground interspersed with trees that were barely touched. She said she watched as a tree toppled from the top of Multnomah Falls, and she watched as rocks tumbled from the steep hillsides onto the Historic Columbia River Highway.
"It's going to take a lot of work" to stabilize the hillsides and trails in the aftermath of the fire, she said. "It's definitely not safe out there."