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Wildfires at Mount Rainier, Gorge continue to chew up iconic scenery, close access

A firefighter maintains a spray of water on the trees around Multnomah Falls on Wednesday as the Eagle Creek Fire continues to burn east of Troutdale, Oregon.
A firefighter maintains a spray of water on the trees around Multnomah Falls on Wednesday as the Eagle Creek Fire continues to burn east of Troutdale, Oregon. AP

A wildfire threatening Crystal Mountain Resort has more than doubled in size and forced closures at Mount Rainier National Park.

The Norse Peak Fire grew from roughly 19,000 acres Tuesday to more than 43,000 acres — or an estimated 68 square miles — on Wednesday, closing all backcountry trails on the east side of the park.

Thick smoke clogged the area, sometimes making it difficult for firefighters to even spot flames. Helicopters stand ready to drop water on the wildfire once the smoke clears enough for pilots to navigate.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the county, which will allow resources to be used “without regard to time-consuming procedures and formalities prescribed by law,” according to the proclamation.

Flames moved down the slope toward Silver Skies at the resort, where fire crews stood waiting with hoses.

“It’s going to be another long night,” resort spokeswoman Tiana Anderson wrote on Crystal Mountain’s Facebook page. “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Evacuation orders were expanded to include Crystal, Gold Hills, Pick Handle Basin, Silver Springs Campground, Silver Creek, Deep Creek, Joke Creek and Alta. Sprinklers were set up in those areas to assist with battling the fire, which has not burned any of the 350 or so structures in the evacuation zone.

The blaze is burning outside Mount Rainier National Park, which closed the northeast portion of the park Tuesday due to “unpredictable fire behavior.”

Sunrise Road is closed from state Route 410 to the junction near White River and Sunrise. SR 410 to Cayuse Pass and state Route 123 inside the park are still open.

All backcountry trails on the east side of the park are closed, from Frozen Lake to Panhandle Gap. All trails along SR 410 and SR 123 north of the Stevens Canyon entrance are also closed.

Hikers are being contacted by rangers when possible and told to immediately leave the area. Visitors at the White River Campground have been told to have their stuff packed and ready to go.

The Norse Peak Fire has forced the closure of the Pacific Crest Trail from Chinook Pass to Government Meadow, which means thru-hikers must find a two-hour ride to Snoqualmie Pass to regain the trail. Mount Rainier advised anyone planning to pick up a hiker from the area to call 360-569-6510.

Steffen Rausch, a German who came to the United States to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, told KIRO the fire and resulting closures are “really sad.”

“Because if you are going to do PCT, you want to do as much of the PCT as you can,” said Rausch, who had hiked the trail from the Mexico border to Washington.

Weather seemed to be cooperating a bit more with firefighting efforts on Wednesday, with winds that once blew up to 40 mph dying down to under 10 mph.

Temperatures will rise back into the low 80s and it’s still dry, with a chance of rain earlier forecast for Thursday all but evaporating. Still, fire officials have hope.

"There's a cool front coming through," Joe Zwierrzchowski, a member of the fire command team, told KOMO. "We're going to see lower temperatures and possibly higher humidity which could help reduce the spread of the fire and help firefighting efforts."

Crews from neighboring communities such as Buckley, Enumclaw and Carbonado responded, bumping the number of firefighters on the wildfire to 341.

Gorge fire grows to 50 square miles

Meanwhile, in Oregon, thousands of residents have evacuated as firefighters battle blazes statewide, including the Eagle Creek fire devastating hiking trails and waterfalls in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.

The fast-moving wildfire on Wednesday was more than 50 square miles. The federally protected scenic area holds North America’s largest concentration of waterfalls and is home to 800 wildflower species. Sixteen of the wildflower species are not found anywhere else.

The gorge also attracts more than 3 million tourists each year.

Law enforcement suspects the fire was started by teenagers who giggled and recorded video Saturday afternoon while lobbing fireworks into the parched canyon.

Liz FitzGerald told The Oregonian that she was hiking in the gorge when she saw a teenage boy hurl a smoke bomb into Eagle Creek Canyon.

Another boy recorded the incident with his cellphone, and some girls in the group giggled as it exploded in the trees below.

“I was probably 4 feet away from him. I said, ‘Do you realize how dangerous this is?’” FitzGerald recounted to the Portland-based newspaper. “‘This place is so dry.’”

A short time later, she encountered hikers who’d also seen the teens setting off fireworks. The hikers were walking to the trailhead to notify park officials about the teens’ behavior.

FitzGerald decided to run back to the start of the trail to do the same thing, the newspaper said. By then, she could see flames and smoke.

As she ran, she encountered the teens again.

“My adrenaline is through the roof,” FitzGerald said. “I said, ‘Do you realize you just started a forest fire?’ And the kid who had been filming with his cellphone said, ‘But what are we supposed to do about it now?’ And I said, ‘Call the fricking fire department!’”

Investigators have said the fire’s cause was “misuse of fireworks.” The teen was a 15-year-old male from Vancouver, Washington. They found him in the trail’s parking lot and interviewed him. No one has been arrested and no formal charges have been made. Authorities have not released the teen’s name.

But video surfaced on YouTube of police interviewing the teens near the entrance to Interstate 84 after what FitzGerald described as a brief minivan chase.

And people spewed venom at the offenders on an Oregon State Police Facebook post that sought information.

“How does it feel to know you personally destroyed so many people’s lives and livelihoods,” one woman wrote. “All the trees and animals you’ve destroyed and history. You deserve a Darwin Award. You probably are the most hated person in the region right now. Good job.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

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