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Looking for Looters: Law enforcement strengthens patrols in evacuated areas

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Deputy Josh Atkins patrols evacuated areas in the Columbia River Gorge on Friday night. (KATU Photo)

Saturday marks one week since the Eagle Creek fire started in the Columbia River Gorge.

For hundreds of evacuees, shelters and hotels have become temporary homes where they sleep, eat and watch from a safe distance the fire that's charred more than 33,000 acres. Some evacuees have been displaced for more than six days.

While firefighters battle the blaze, police are heavily patrolling vacated neighborhoods, looking to keep looters away.

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Deputy Josh Atkins brought us along for the ride.

"We're constantly out checking homes, making sure that everything is OK," Atkins told me. "There's better security than you would get on a normal day of patrol in the Gorge."

With the help of Portland police and Oregon state troopers, Atkins says they look for suspicious vehicles, people who don't appear to live in the area and things that look out of place.

"We all work together. When a large event like this happens, we'll pull people from everywhere," he said.

Atkins normally works in the training division. On Friday, he was in a unit on patrol.

"I'm with the sheriff's office," Atkins announced as he approached a homeowner near Larch Mountain. The area is currently under Level 3 evacuation orders.

"How are you?" he said. "We're coming out here to do some home checks, to make sure that everyone is OK. You guys doing all right?"

The homeowner said he was staying at his home for the night.

"You take care of yourself," Atkins responded to the man as he logged the man's address for records.

The sheriff's office reported earlier this week some looting had occurred, but no additional reports were filed.

"You would hope the people wouldn't do that, but the fact is, is that people do, do that, and it's our job as police officers to try to stop that," Atkins said of looters. "We're doing all that we can."

As another layer of protection, Oregon Department of Transportation crews form roadblocks. They check each car coming and going and don't allow non-residents to enter mandatory evacuation areas.

Officers aren't only looking for criminal activity.

"We're also looking for spot fires," Atkins said. "If we can spot a small fire that is starting, get that information to our command center, you could be potentially be saving homes and thousands of acres."

Evacuees, like Elda Urias, says she appreciates their service. She captured a deputy inspecting her property overnight Thursday.

"When we saw them last night at 1:30 [a.m.] checking on our home, I thought it was wonderful," Urias said to Atkins. "We've been quite concerned ... appreciate everything you guys do for us."

Deputies say as soon as firefighters say it is safe for residents to return home, they will reopen the area. Until then, they ask for visitors to stay out of the area to make room for first responders fighting the fire.

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