Fires sear Portland bluff

August 9, 2001

By Peter Farrell, The Oregonian

What started as a routine brush fire along the east bank of the Willamette River almost instantly spread up a steep North Portland bluff Wednesday evening to threaten homes and buildings and become one of the worst urban wildfires in the Portland's history.

All available firefighters -- about 170 -- were called out in five alarms to the University of Portland area. Many stationed themselves between the onrushing flames and endangered homes to help residents who were desperately using garden hoses against flames roaring 30 to 50 feet into the air in their back yards.

As the fire spread out of control, flames leaped from exploding brush to the tops of trees. As many as 100 homes were in the danger zone, fire officials said. Winds at 18 mph to 20 mph carried embers that started what appeared to be three big fires and several spot fires along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks at the base of the bluff.

At times, patches of brush exploded into flames as people fighting the fires watched, and fire stretched south two miles from about the 7200 block of North Willamette Boulevard.

Firefighters asked police to help them warn residents to leave threatened homes and to clear buildings at the University of Portland that appeared to be in the path of advancing flames. Firefighters and neighbors evacuated about three blocks near the intersection of North Warren and McKenna streets.

Fire chiefs called in three fireboats to pump Willamette River water on the flames and private and Air National Guard aircraft to drop water from the air, turning the university area into a scene reminiscent of a California wildfire.

The spreading flames never reached University of Portland property, but students and two priests from the university ran to help their neighbors fight the flames.

The grass fire was reported from 7523 N. Edgewater St. at 5:46 p.m. Within minutes, homes and buildings were threatened by heavy flames. Additional alarms were called in minutes apart.

The worst danger lasted less than an hour. By 6:40 p.m. fire chiefs declared homes in the 6800 block of North Willamette Boulevard out of danger and concentrated on smaller fires springing up along the railroad tracks that run along the river at the foot of the bluff.

Fences and decks were reported burned, but no homes were reported lost and no serious injuries were reported, said Neil Heesacker, a Portland Fire Bureau information officer.

"Some homes had scorched paint, but that's it," he said.

Residents praised firefighters, one calling out to a passing firefighter, "Hey, thanks. You saved my house."

Capt. Pat Davies of Engine 40 pulled up to 6800 North Willamette Boulevard -- where houses were in immediate danger -- to find people standing in their yards waving and yelling, "Stop, Stop. Help us."

Firefighters saw a wall of fire and no units nearby to help. Davies found a hydrant, pulled hoses in to bring water to the house, then recruited residents to help put out the fire.

"People were quite helpful. They took instruction very well," Davies said.

He told people, "Help me here, and then we'll go help your neighbor."

Some witnesses speculated that sparks from a passing freight train started the fire. "We've heard that, and our investigators will look into it," Heesacker said.

Units from Vancouver, Wash.; Gresham; Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue; Sauvie Island; Clackamas County; and the Port of Portland covered Portland fire stations. Some off-duty firefighters were called out.

Thick white smoke could be seen from throughout the metropolitan area, and smoke and embers were seen across the river in Portland's Washington Park.

Heesacker said that although Wednesday's fire was exceptionally large, firefighters knew from experience that the steep bluff would make it impossible to bring equipment close to the flames and would make it difficult for firefighters to keep their footing.

Ed King, who lives at the intersection of Willamette Lane and North McKenna Avenue, didn't know the fire was going on until a woman pounded on his door. Micayla Forrest, who moved to Portland three days ago and was in the neighborhood looking for a house, saw a tree on fire in back of the house and went to the door.

After getting King out of the house, she grabbed one of King's garden hoses and started spraying the fire. "All we saw was smoke and flame," she said. But the wind got to be too much, and they had to give up the fight.

Shortly afterward the fire died down because, firefighters said, there was nothing left in the brush to burn.

King and Forrest watched flames approach the house from about a block away. King said a greenhouse behind his home was destroyed, and he worried about his back deck.

Doug Mercer, who works in Vancouver, Wash., said his wife and three children were eating in the dining room when she saw smoke. After calling 9-1-1 to report the fire, she called him. "She told me, 'There's a big fire coming over the hill. You better get home,' " he said.

He said it looked like all of North Portland was on fire from the Interstate Bridge. As he neared his house, he saw neighbors scrambling out of their homes with belongings in their arms.

Two sisters helped his wife take belongings from their home after the children were out. "She asked us to take picture albums, anything you would take," said Andy Metzler, one of the sisters who lives a couple of blocks from Willamette Boulevard.

Carol Gast, who lives a block from the edge of the brush fire, heard the fire engines and went outside to see a black sky. "I've never been so scared in my life," she said. "Your stomach's in your feet."

She ran over to a neighbor's house that was closer to the fire, to interrupt their dinner. She helped the family evacuate with their two crying children. Gast said, "Total strangers were coming up, (to ask) 'What can we do for you?' " she said. "We finally have a chance to see our neighbors." One group of residents organized a bucket brigade between a swimming pool and burning brush.

Eight or nine University of Portland students became volunteer firefighters when they ran toward the edge of the campus and found fire hoses lying on the grass.

Four firefighters were busy at a nearby section of the blaze, so the students took two hoses and pointed them down the steep bank toward the river. The fire had spread to the campus and stopped there.

"Somebody laid the hose there, and the next thing you know, the kids were all working," said firefighter Cliff Phillips of Engine 14. "They're young and strong, like I wish I was."

A prayer service had just ended when the fire began. Father Ronald Wasowski, a Holy Cross priest on campus, and Father Peter Pacini, jumped in a car and drove toward the smoke. They got there in time to help homeowners spray down their houses.

"At one point a 40-foot spruce tree went up like a torch, and that's when I bailed out," Wasowski said.

Three fire boats joined the operation, including the David Campbell, which pumps 15,000 gallons a minute. The other two, the Williams and the Vern Buss, pump 5,000 gallons a minute. Helicopters from the 1042nd Med Evac unit based in Salem assisted firefighters. One of the two Black Hawk helicopters was equipped with a 1,000-gallon tank, the other carried a 750-gallon bucket.

Fire engines spread along Willamette Boulevard and Edgewater Street at the top of the bluff hooked up to every hydrant they could find and sprayed down the bank, Heesacker said.

Hours after the fire began, firefighters were wetting down hot spots. The quiet streets around the university -- lined with maples and oaks -- were taken over as a fire staging area. There were puddles of water for several blocks, hoses snaking through the neighborhood, fire ladders towering over homes, tanker trucks parked alongside cars of neighborhood residents, the
whir of helicopters overhead.

People who pulled off the highways to see what was going were standing side-by-side with people who fled their homes as folks took pictures of the sunset and remaining flames.

Portland might have some itchy firefighters this morning. Poison oak is abundant on the bluff. Smoke carries it, Heesacker said, "and if you get in the smoke there is nothing you can really do about it," he said.

The fire was near the old McCormick and Baxter site, a former Superfund site, but Heesacker said firefighters are not worried about it because the pollution problem is under the ground.

Flames threatened a set near the river for the movie "The Hunted," but the firefighters saved that, too.

©The Oregonian 2001

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