Cascade Locks students talk about the gorge fire

The children in the ExCEL summer school class at Cascade Locks Elementary know that where they live, the Columbia River Gorge, is a special place. They also know their town is within a national scenic area. When a photo of Oregon’s iconic volcano flashes on the screen, they can immediately identify it, shouting in unison: “Mount Hood!”

And they know firsthand how fire can endanger their homes and families. All the children experienced the trauma of last year’s Eagle Creek Fire in the gorge that burned nearly 50,000 acres. They lived through evacuations and uncertainty as smoke and fire became part of their lives for several months.

I visited with the class on July 19 with forest advocates who asked these Kindergarten through fifth graders to speak about their experiences during the fire and taught them about how fire is a natural force for renewal in the forest that surrounds their town. As part of the day, we took a fieldtrip that brought the group to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Class and visitors do a mid-morning stretch. Photos by Mark Larabee.

The children saw charcoal landscapes and new growth in the emerging forest, collected pine cones and dipped their toes in a cool creek. Hopefully, seeing wildflowers and ferns growing from singed soils and hearing the birds sing will ease any stress they might be feeling.

“Their teacher wanted me to come speak to the kids and take them in the forest for their own healing,” said Ralph Bloemers, who showed slides and short films, including before and after photos of the rapid changes to the landscape since the fire. “The idea is to move past the fire and see that the forest is coming back. They are curious and excited about that. They want to move on.”

Ralph is one of the founding attorneys at the Crag Law Center in Portland, which does legal work on behalf of environmental advocates and nonprofits, among others. (Full disclosure: Crag has worked on behalf of the PCTA.) He’s been devoting a lot of his time since the fire on public education, working with the media and community groups to change how society views and talks about forest fires.

He had a lot of fun interacting with the children and getting them excited about what they were seeing and learning. I asked him afterward what the ultimate goal was.

“We need to change the dominant language,” he said. “The forest is not ‘recovering’ after a fire, because it was not destroyed. Fire is a natural force in the forest, just like rain. There is a lot of beauty that is emerging in the young forests after the fire. Seeing this helps us learn to coexist with fire and to see how we can care for and steward the forest after fire without intervening.”

Joining Ralph was Brenna Bell, an attorney for BARK, a Portland-based advocacy group that works to protect the Mount Hood National Forest and surrounding landscapes. She spoke at length to the students and asked them about their experiences during the fire.

“In Portland we saw smoke and ash,” she told the students, “but mostly we were worried about the people in the gorge.”

The children were eager to share their stories.

  • “It was super scary,” said one. “It came down the hill by where my friend lives and it was super smoky and we had to wear masks.”
  • “I had to evacuate just a little bit,” said another. “We went to my church but then we went back to our house.”
  • “I went to bed and I woke up and we had to leave. There were people knocking on our door.”
  • “I saw something I had never seen before: a tree with the sap inside that got so hot that it blew up.”
  • “We had all our stuff in the van and we got all our clothes and stuff and we left. My mom took a picture of it burning in the back yard.”

Brenna said she thought it was important to give the children a chance to talk about what they’d been through. Hearing their stories, she said was “sobering.”

“They’re going to be telling the story of this fire for their entire lives” Brenna said. “Changing the culture starts with changing individual lives. We are offering them a different perspective. It will cast a different light on what was truly a traumatic event for them.”

After the classroom session, the children, their teachers and volunteers hiked in small groups up the Dry Creek Trail, which connects Cascade Locks to the PCT. They looked at trees burned at the base that were still thriving and they worked on a scavenger hunt that included things like wildflowers, pine cones, signs of woodpeckers and plants that grow back from their base. They looked for signs of the fire and talked about how it changed the landscape — and how the landscape is always changing.

“What an amazing day!” said Sheri Holloway, the teacher who organized the day. “To see the kids’ faces light up with such excitement melts my heart. No words can’t express how grateful I feel.”

A few days later, Sheri sent this via email: “Thanks to the whole team, lives were changed on July 19, 2018. The students are excited to go on the trails and know that there is benefits to fire.”

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.