Cascade Locks calls itself the “Heart of the Columbia River Gorge.” When the Eagle Creek fire ignited over Labor Day weekend, the Oregon-side Gorge community of about 1,200 suddenly found itself at the heart of a conflagration that threatened its very existence.
By Stan Hall
During the crisis, Cascade Locks business owners banded together to help their town get through this extraordinary event. In the process, a new sense of community and purpose was forged: Cascade Locks Strong.
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Labor Day weekend change of plansDave Lipps and Caroline Park, owners of Friends business member Thunder Island Brewing, had been gearing up for Labor Day weekend business that would provide a financial cushion through the slower fall and winter months. That all changed on the fire’s second day, Sept. 3, when the situation got precipitously worse and volunteer fire crews began arriving from various Gorge communities—the first of what eventually became a nearly thousand-strong force fighting the flames throughout the affected areas.
Evacuation notices began, and much of Cascade Locks was evacuation level 3 (“Go”). “Technically our business (located at the Port of Cascade Locks) was level 2 (‘Be Ready’),” Park said. “But the Port itself closed, so we did as well.” Cascade Locks soon became an island as Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway were both shut down. It wasn’t until Sept. 23, when the interstate was once again fully open, that non-locals were able to access the town.
But instead of focusing all their attention on their threatened home—the flames crept within a quarter-mile—or hunkering down at Skamania Lodge across the river where many Gorge evacuees were temporarily relocated (rooms were available due to canceled weddings and other events), Park and Lipps began working on behalf of the town and the firefighters.
Feeding Firefighters“The (Gorge volunteer crews) were the first fire responders, doing triage, assessing the fire risk to the community, but they didn’t have anywhere to eat because all the businesses had shut down,” Lipps said. ”The Forest Service contracted with us to feed these firefighters on that day, using the food that was intended for the holiday weekend.”
The Forest Service set up its firefighting operations center in Odell, about 30 miles away, as state resources started coming in and fire crews from every part of Oregon started made their way to the Gorge. On Labor Day, the day the fire exploded into regional and soon national consciousness, a message change started going around the Cascade Locks business community to pool resources and feed firefighters coming off their shifts. “All the work was worth it to see these firefighters, coming off these hard, 12-hour shifts at 7 a.m., look so happy to get a breakfast burrito,” Park said.
The businesses that serve food were sitting on a lot of perishable product. Outside companies like Sysco, a food distributor, and Dave’s Killer Bread offered resources that were accepted. And Cascade Locks businesses that previously had little contact with each other literally rubbed shoulders as they prepared meals for fire crews in each other’s kitchens.
“One of the most amazing things about this experience is that it’s brought our community together in a way that never would have happened or would have taken years to happen,” Lipps said. “Different businesses took over cooking certain meals. I remember one moment when I dropped some stuff off at the Cascade Ale House and in the kitchen saw someone from every restaurant in town helping prepare food. We had never, ever worked together like that before.”
“It was actually pretty fun to collaborate,” Park said. “One business would say ‘Hey, we’ve got a bunch of ground beef’ and another would say ‘We’ve got a lot of marinara sauce. Let’s make spaghetti!’”
Park and Lipps are quick to credit their fellow business community members. “Shelly James of Cascade Ale House, Kim Brigham Campbell of Brigham Fish Market and Sally Drew, chef at the Cascade Inn—these ladies are my local heroes,” Caroline said. “Because they were on the main street, we used the Ale House and Inn as our main points for serving the firefighters. We just provided food, to-go boxes, and kept a text-message chain going to coordinate. It was a really great, collective effort.” Park also noted that other business owners would have been just as closely involved, but had to leave due to their own or family members’ health issues as the thick smoke from the fire perpetually blanketed the town.
A Creative Solution to a Financial and Logistical Squeeze: Cascade Locks StrongEven before desperately needed rain and cooler temperatures finally arrived—“a special moment,” Park said—and the immediacy of the fire threat began to recede, Thunder Island Brewing and other Cascade Locks businesses had started taking a hard look at the financial impact of the lost business from the fire. The past year had included a number of closure days that no one could have anticipated; for Thunder Island Brewing, it was 20 working days in all, between the fire and the severe winter weather months earlier.
Beyond the lost revenue, there were numerous overhead costs, and insurance did not cover lost anticipated profits during the first 72 hours of the fire, which coincided with what had been expected to be among the most profitable working days of the entire year. Financial and logistical realities forced creative thinking to help Cascade Locks businesses recover. The result was Cascade Locks Strong (cascadelocksstrong.com), a website where people can purchase gift certificates to be redeemed at more than a dozen businesses in the town.
“A lot of people said they wanted to support us,” Park said. “But how might they do it? What we needed was cash flow, but the first couple of weeks of the fire, it was clear that sending people into the Gorge was a bad idea; people needed to stay away. What we could do is create an online marketplace. That’s how Cascade Locks Strong began, and I think it’ll keep going through the fall and winter.”
“It wasn’t easy to get people signed up at first because they had to evacuate and were hard to locate,” Lipps said. “Some of the businesses are pretty small, places a lot of people haven’t ever been to. It’s good advertising and business for everyone.”
The fundraising campaign so far has exceeded expectations. The initial $10,000 goal was met within two days of launch; as of Nov. 13, Cascade Locks Strong sales have generated $21,030 from over 200 donors from as far away as Louisiana and Pennsylvania.
Looking AheadPark and Lipps note that all Cascade Locks businesses, not just the ones included on the website, need help to get through this tough time. Unfortunately one business, the Cascade Country Store, has had to close as a result of lost business due to the fire. Also of concern is the fire's effect on the Tribal salmon vendors often seen near Bridge of the Gods and other locations. “I think they have been impacted even more because the fire happened in the middle of the fall Chinook run,” Park noted.
Cascade Locks Strong is readying a holiday campaign, to be launched alongside Small Business Saturday on Nov. 25, in a renewed effort to help Gorge businesses recover from the fire.
Working together and showing resilience in the face of this historic and potentially devastating fire, the Cascade Locks Strong effort is a launching point for businesses to build a stronger community and help Cascade Locks thrive.
“This isn’t about just one particular business,” Park said. “We are stronger together as a group of affected businesses. We are ‘Cascade Locks Strong’ and figured it out together. We’re a family in the Gorge.”
Visit Cascade Locks Strong
Photos from top: The Eagle Creek fire seen from north end of Bridge of the Gods, Sept. 4, 2017 (Tristan Fortsch); Dave Lipps and Caroline Park, co-owners of Thunder Island Brewing (Stan Hall); Firefighters being fed at Thunder Island Brewing, Sept. 3, 2017 (Caroline Park); screenshot from cascadelocksstrong.com.