Anatomy of an Inferno: How the Columbia River Gorge Fire Raced Out of Control

A tossed firecracker leads to a blaze that officials say won't be contained until Sept. 30.

The Columbia River Gorge is ablaze.

A firecracker tossed along Eagle Creek on Labor Day weekend grew into an inferno in Portland's backyard, burning at least 10,000 acres in one of the state's most beloved scenic areas.

Oregon is a tinderbox, and the Gorge fire joins dozens of other wildfires burning across the state. But rarely has a fire burned such an iconic wilderness so close to Portland. Ash began drifting across the city Sept. 4 like a dirty snowstorm, the heaviest such fall many residents could recall since the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

A look at the fire's progress shows how quickly it grew out of control, in a perfect storm of record heat, parched forests, high winds and teenage horseplay.

3:30 pm, Saturday, Sept. 2: A 15-year-old Vancouver, Wash., boy is seen tossing firecrackers off a cliff into the Eagle Creek canyon while a friend films the stunt (read a recounting here). Hikers soon observe trees on fire, and the trail to Punch Bowl Falls is choked with smoke. (1)

6 pm Saturday, Sept. 2: More than 150 hikers are trapped between the Eagle Creek fire and an ongoing blaze, the Indian Creek fire. They sleep overnight on the Eagle Creek Trail before a search-and-rescue team can retrieve them at Wahtum Lake on Sunday morning. (2)

7:25 am Sunday, Sept. 3: Feeding on a bone-dry forest, the fire grows to 3,200 acres. Evacuation notices are issued for parts of the town of Cascade Locks. (3)

4:15 pm Monday, Sept. 4: East winds push through the Gorge, spreading the fire rapidly west. State officials begin evacuating the towns of Warrendale and Dodson, and shut down 27 miles of Interstate 84. (4)

11 pm Monday, Sept. 4: Officials announce the fire has raced 4 miles in less than three hours, growing to 4,800 acres. "With strong winds like this, fire is impossible to fight," warns the National Weather Service's Portland office. "Focus is on evacuating areas in danger." (5)

5 am Tuesday, Sept. 5: The fire roars another 8 miles west through the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, with winds blowing embers from ridge to ridge. Flames surround Multnomah Falls and are seen near Crown Point. Residents of parts of Troutdale are told to be ready to leave. (6)

Fire by the Numbers

Minimum number of acres burning in the Columbia River Gorge at press deadline.

Number of homes evacuated in the Gorge, including the towns of Corbett, Bridal Veil and Warrendale.

Number of buildings damaged in the first 72 hours of the blaze.

Sept. 30
Date state officials expect to have the wildfire completely under control.

WW staff intern Jessica Pollard contributed reporting to this story.