It is the worst nightmare of many area firefighters and many local homeowners: a wildfire starting on State Route 14 and running fast up the bluff.
That was the scenario that unfolded in White Salmon on Monday at approximately 11 a.m. A fire on SR 14 near milepost 64 -- between the Hood River Toll Bridge and Alternate 141 -- sent tall trees flaring as it advanced up the steep, rocky hillside. Several homes on the bluff were threatened, and some residents voluntarily evacuated as a precaution.
Fire crews from White Salmon, Husum, Cherry Lane, High Prairie, and Bingen responded, along with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, and Klickitat County fire crews. Two helicopters carrying buckets also assisted in knocking down the flames.
Tom Smith, fire chief of the White Salmon Fire Department, said firefighters got some help from above -- in more ways than one.
"We were lucky there was no wind," Smith said. "That was the only reason it wasn't a lot worse. And DNR had helicopters on it right away. That's what made the difference. With the terrain so severe, the groundpounders can't work in there. It's tough for people."
Smith said the fire, which started on the north side of SR 14, went about half the distance between SR 14 and the homes on the bluff before it was knocked down.
Rod Altig, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service/National Scenic Area in Hood River, concurred with Smith's description of the terrain.
"It's pretty ugly ground," Altig said. "There is a lot of poison oak, and boulders."
One of the homes in jeopardy from the fire belonged to Hal and Julie Ueland. They had been out of town and, while driving home, heard about the fire on the radio as they were nearing White Salmon.
"Our first notice was listening to Q-104," said Hal Ueland. "Later we saw smoke, and were rooting for it to be east of us."
Ueland said by the time they reached their house at around 2 p.m., they found firefighters on the scene.
"Our place was overrun by yellowcoats when we got home," he said.
Ueland's home was not damaged, however, and he praised the firefighters.
"They did a great job of soaking the house and pouring water over the side and on the brush," Ueland explained. "The flames didn't get too close. They're good; they know what they're doing. We had smoke in the house, but it wasn't very thick. I think we're going to be OK."
Most of the homes that were threatened were in an area that included Eyrie Road, West Winds Road, Cherry Blossom Lane, and Dogwood Lane.
Jan Jones, a resident of West Winds Road, said that although there could be another fire at any time, she was very encouraged by the strength and efficiency of the response by fire crews.
"They all did a fabulous job," Jones said.
Altig estimated that somewhere between 10 and 15 acres burned, but no homes were lost and no injuries were reported in Monday's incident.
In a break, a firefighting helicopter was on hand in Trout Lake. According to fire officials, before this year, it had been 20 years since a helicopter has been based there. In previous years, helicopters have come from as far as Ellensburg to fight blazes in the mid-Columbia River Gorge area.
The other helicopter helping douse Monday's fire came from the DNR base in Ellensburg.
Altig explained that the basing of a helicopter in Trout Lake was the result of a joint request by the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, Mount Hood National Forest, and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Regional fire officials sought the added firefighting capability due to the anticipated severity of the fire season. The helicopter will be stationed at the Dallesport airport for the remainder of the season.
At the height of the blaze, boaters on the Columbia River were asked to stay out of way of the helicopters dropping buckets to fight the fire, and homeowners on the bluff were advised to run their sprinklers along property edges to minimize the danger that the flames could spread.
To make way for the many emergency vehicles in the area, SR 14 between Alt. 141 and the toll bridge was closed to all except emergency traffic for several hours. Westbound traffic off the bridge was turned back at the Park & Ride lot or detoured via Dock Grade Road.
SR 14 reopened to one-lane traffic at approximately 4:30 p.m. Monday, and was back to normal traffic by late Monday evening.
The cause of the fire had not been determined as of late Monday, although Altig said it was likely "human caused."
Fire crews were expected to remain on the scene for several hours Monday evening to ensure no flare-ups occurred.
"They will work until it's nearly dark," Altig said. "It's too dangerous to work after dark."
Fire Chief Smith praised the efforts of the other fire departments in the region.
"I want to offer a big thank you from the White Salmon Fire Department for all the mutual aid and for the quick response -- and to DNR for the helicopters," Smith said.