Crews extinguish three-alarm Government Island wildfire

Crews extinguish three-alarm Government Island wildfire »Play Video
Photo courtesy Charlie Boucher.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Fire crews have extinguished a three-alarm wildfire that erupted on Government Island Monday afternoon, sending a large plume of smoke into the air that could be seen for miles around.

Fire crews first got the call around 1:20 p.m. and the rising column of smoke quickly caught people's attention. Not only were 911 operators getting calls, but so were local news stations. KATU News received a number of calls from viewers who sent photos and video clips.

According to Portland Fire & Rescue, firefighters got the fire under control at about 5:45 p.m on Monday and spokesman Rich Chatman confirmed early Tuesday morning that crews had left the scene.

Government Island, which can be seen from the Glenn L. Jackson Memorial Bridge, where Interstate 205 crosses the Columbia River, is not inhabited. Boaters often spend the day there or camp overnight. A couple of dozen people were evacuated after the fire broke out.

"A lot of the people who were there had boats, so it was just a matter of telling them to get in their boat and leave," Chatman said

"I didn't think it was real at first," said Jose Molina, one of the evacuees. "You usually see this on TV and when I first saw it, I didn't think it was real. And then you go into it and see all the fire spreading. That's when you see that it's actually happening."

The interior part of the island is generally off limits to the public (accessible by permit only) because it is used as a cattle ranch and also has protected natural areas.

Getting people off the island was the biggest challenge at the onset of the fire. Once everyone was evacuated, then shifting winds became an issue. And it took a good deal of coordination to get crews and equipment to the scene.

History of Government Island

Government Island was one of fourteen landing sites in the Vancouver-Portland area used by Lewis and Clark: the 32 members of the expedition camped on the north side in 1805. Lt. Clark named it 'Dimond' Island, and it also was known at one point as Goose Grass Island.

Its current name comes from the fact that it was appropriated by the U.S. military in 1850 to grow hay. The interior was privately owned and settled by a small number of families; previously, it had been used by farmers, fur traders, and Native Americans to hunt, fish, and pasture animals.

In 1969, the Port of Portland purchased the island, as well as Lemon Island to the west and McGuire Island to the southeast, as a possible expansion site for Portland International Airport. In 1999, the Port sold 224 acres to Metro and leased the remaining acreage to the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department at $10 per year for 99 years.

"This is logistically not the easiest situation for us," Chatman said.

The fire started out at just around two acres and by the late afternoon had grown to 20 acres. The entire island is 1,578 acres.

Firefighters said the first callers to 911 described the fire burning on a large field of grass.

Over the course of the afternoon, the fire moved south and burned in the tops of trees, firefighters said.

Portland Fire & Rescue got help from Multnomah County, Vancouver, Gresham, Airport Fire and the U.S. Coast Guard. About 80 firefighters battled the blaze.

Traffic was impacted along Northeast Marine Drive near the 42nd Street boat ramp (where fire crews were staging) and I-205 in both directions. The right northbound lane of I-205 was closed for emergency vehicles.

The wildfire did not cause delays in departures or arrivals at nearby Portland International Airport.

However, the wildfire produced so much smoke that by late Monday, an advisory was issued about air quality.

"Breathing smoke in the air creates health concerns that everybody needs to be aware of," said Justin Denny, Health Officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

No injuries were reported and the cause of the fire is under investigation.


Video From Along Marine Drive (courtesy Ian H. Moore)

 Video from KATU helicopter Jet Ranger 2


Cell Phone Video (Courtesy of KATU reporter Bob Heye)

Time-lapse Video from Downtown Portland (Courtesy of Jeff Bolton)