PORTLAND, OREGON/ SEATTLE, WASHINGTON/ SAN FRANCISCO- If there is one word to describe 2020, especially in the United States, it would be this: apocalyptic! Eliminating the social, political and economical aspects, eliminating even the Corona Virus- which will put the country into its first Great Depression in over 90 years, we have not seen a year where we had record amounts of prolonged heat waves, flooding, tornadoes, drought, weather extremities and even forest fires as this year, 2020. Especially with regards to forest fires, this year has become the apocalypse, which may be the beginning of something far worse should we continue with the normalcy we are at, at the present time.
The Great Western Fires of 2020 will undoubtedly go down as the worst fires in US history. Over 300,000 fires have been reported in 12 western states- yet the hardest hit areas are California, Oregon and Washington. Over 8 million acres along the entire West Coast have been burned, caused by dry conditions, high winds of up to 100 km/h and high temperatures reaching 50°C! Communities have been wiped off the map with hundreds of thousands being forced to evacuate and losing their homes in the process. At the time of this report, 17 people have been reported dead with scores more missing- and the numbers are expected to skyrocket.
With these flames burning out of control come the loss of historic places- including historic bridges. Reports have come out that dozens of structures have been destroyed by the flames. Some of them come from Oregon, where over a dozen covered bridges used to exist. Some of them did not survive the inferno. In Washington state, a pair of rare bridges were burned to the ground. In California, some bridges narrowly escaped the flames yet others were not so lucky.
The Chronicles is doing a quick summary on the casualties of the Great Fires, keeping in mind that it will be updated frequently as more reports come in on the destruction of the fires. For now, here is what we know from the historic bridges that fell victim to the blazes:
Spanning the MacKenzie River on King West Road near Rainbow, this 180-foot covered bridge was built in 1966, even though the Howe truss span dates back to 1911 and it had been built three times. The Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The bridge and nearby Rainbow were both destroyed in the fires that happened on September 7th.
Built in 1938, this bridge features three spans totalling 237 feet with its largest span, a through Howe Truss, being 138 feet long. The design is similar to the one at Rainbow. And like the Belknap CB, this bridge was also listed on the National Register in 1979. While the MacKenzie River structure barely survived the fires, despite contridicting reports, its nearby town of Vida did not and that was confirmed by officials.
One of the most heart-breaking losses of a historic bridge is this one, near Colfax in Whitman County, Washington. The Harpole Bridge was an encased Howe truss bridge with each truss being covered in wooden siding. The structure, which used to carry railroad traffic before it was handed over to property owners, was a through truss bridge that spanned the Palouse River. It was built in 1922 but the trusses were encased six years later. It had been the last bridge of its kind left in the entire country untils fires swept through the region and brought this structure down to the ground on September 7th. Still no word on whether it will be rebuilt. Ironically, the last encased truss span remaining in the US is a Howe pony truss bridge in Coos County, New Hampshire. That bridge was rehabilitated and repurposed for pedestrian use in 2015.
Bidwell Bar Suspension Bridges
If there were some bridges that survived close calls with a blazing inferno, it would be the two suspension bridges in California. The original Bidwell Bar Suspension Bridge was built in 1856 by Starbuck Iron Works of Troy, New York and is the last known suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River that was over 160 years old. The bridge is located at the Oroville Lake and Dam area. The Bidwell Bar Bridge replaced the 1856 span and spans the Middle Fork Feather River at the Loafer Creek Recreational Site. The suspension bridge was built in 1966 and has a total length of 1793 feet, with a span of 1100 feet. That bridge became a poster boy of the Oroville Fires that devastated much of the area, wiping out villages, resorts and the like. Berry Creek has been decimated whereas fires are threatening the Oroville area at the time of this posting. Despite fears that the two structures would be destroyed, news have come out that the bridges are still standing and are safe- for now that is. Work is underway to keep the structures in tact while using it to allow for people still stranded to evacuate.
Spanning the Yakima River in Benton County, Washington, this 680-foot long railroad trestle features a series of steel and wooden spans. Owned by Central Washington Railroad, this bridge had regularily served train traffic until fires destroyed the wooden spans on September 8th. It is unknown whether the fires caused the 1941 bridge’s demise or if sparks from trains crossing it may have caused the fire. It is known that much of the bridge will need to be replaced in order for the service line, which connects Benton City and Prosser to reopen.
More stories of bridge tragedies and close calls will follow was the Great Western Fire is still raging. As widespread as it is, there will surely be more casualties to be added to the list. For now though, stay tuned. For those living out west, stay safe and if ordered to do so, get out while you still can.