Oregon wildfire ravages picturesque gorge, ash chokes communities

Sept 5 (Reuters) - A wildfire outside Portland, Oregon, forced hundreds of local residents to evacuate on Tuesday as it ravaged the picturesque Columbia River Gorge and sent burning embers raining on communities miles away.

The so-called Eagle Creek Fire, which has burned 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) since it broke out on Saturday, has torn through timber in the gorge, destroying landmarks in one of the Pacific Northwest's most prized natural areas, officials said.

"Our hearts are breaking," Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at a news conference. "The Gorge is Oregon's crown jewel."

The blaze was one of 81 large fires burning in the United States on Tuesday, with more than 28 burning in Montana and nearly 20 in Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The blazes over the last several days have created unhealthy air conditions in some areas.

See images of the gorge before the fire:

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Columbia River Gorge
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Columbia River Gorge
View north across the Columbia River from a riverside park in Cascade Locks Oregon. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
OREGON, UNITED STATES - 2014/11/09: View of Latourell Falls in the fall, a waterfall near Portland along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, USA, within Guy W. Talbot State Park. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
OREGON, UNITED STATES - 2014/11/07: View of Multnomah Falls with foot bridge in the fall, a waterfall near Portland along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, USA. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MULTNOMAH FALLS, OR - SEPTEMBER 26: Visitors on a bridge admire the Multnomah Waterfalls, in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area September 26, 2014 in Multnomah Falls, Oregon. Following considerable public outcry, the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday it will delay finalizing restrictive rules requiring media to purchase special permits to shoot photos or videos in wilderness areas. (Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images)
OREGON, UNITED STATES - 2014/11/09: View in the morning of the Columbia River gorge with the Vista House in the fall from the Women's Forum State Park near Portland in Oregon, USA. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR JUNE 04, 2014 - The Vista House, right, sits atop a vantage point 733 feet above the Columbia River and overlooks one of Oregon's most inspiring views sitting on a basalt promontory shaped by the same volcanic lava flows, floods and winds that created the Columbia River Gorge as the S.S. Legacy cruises along the Columbia River Gorge on the Columbia, Snake & Willamette Rivers traveling nearly 1,000 miles roundtrip from Portland, Oregon on June 4, 2014 during an Un-Cruise Legacy of Discovery tour. The 7-night river cruise is aboard the 192 foot long 88-guest replica coastal steamer built in 1983 and refurbished last year. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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Winds sent ash raining down on Portland about 30 miles (48 km) to the west of the fire on Tuesday, said Joanie Schmidgall, a spokeswoman for the team fighting the fire.

Lieutenant Damon Simmons, a spokesman for the Oregon state Fire Marshal's Office, told reporters that in his 18 years experience in the area he had never seen a wildfire propel ash as intensely as the Eagle Creek Fire.

Flying embers, aside from reaching Portland, also sparked spot fires north across the Columbia River in Washington state.

The fire led authorities to order 400 households in Multnomah County, Oregon, to evacuate, county sheriff's spokesman Bryan White said at a news conference.

A lesser number of households were also evacuated across the border in Washington state, Schmidgall said. The fire has destroyed an unknown number of structures.

In western Montana, where a statewide fire disaster was declared last week, the Rice Ridge Fire near Sealey Lake has grown into one of the largest blazes in the state, charring more than 108,000 acres (43,700 hectares) since lightning sparked it on July 24, officials said.

The blaze, which is only 2 percent contained, forced about 2,000 people out of their homes on Aug. 28 and they remain under evacuation orders, said fire information officer Mike Cole.

The air in parts of Montana has been declared unhealthy due to smoke from the blazes.

"It's not the worst we've seen but it's getting there," said Kristi Ponozzo, policy director for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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