Oregon Expects Reopening and Repairing Roads Damaged by Wildfires Will Take Months

Fire damage along Oregon Route 138, near Susan Creek.

Fire damage along Oregon Route 138, near Susan Creek. Oregon DOT

 

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Over 200 miles of Oregon roads were closed as of last week due to the catastrophic blazes. The state’s transportation department is dealing with problems like hazardous trees and rockslide risks.

As Oregon looks to recover from the catastrophic wildfires that have been burning there in recent weeks, one of the difficulties the state faces is getting roads repaired and reopened.

Thousands of burnt trees that could fall on roadways need to be cleared. Vegetation that helped to stabilize steep slopes along roads has been incinerated, raising the risk of debris sliding onto roads, especially during and after rain storms. There are also places where the road surface itself was damaged by heat and flames and may need to be repaved or otherwise fixed. 

Road signs, drainage ditches, culverts and bridges are all in need of inspection and possible repairs as well.

“We have tens of thousands of trees that we need to cut before we can even look at what’s next for opening roads,” Angela Beers Seydel, a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said by phone on Friday. “Trees are burned right up to the side of the road.”

“These are the worst conditions that experienced staff have ever seen,” she added.

A landslide on Oregon Route 224. (Oregon Department of Transportation)

On Monday, the Oregon Department of Forestry was monitoring 10 major fires burning in different parts of the state. Wildfires in Oregon this year have burned over 1 million acres. 

The fire situation there became more severe when strong winds blew through the state around Labor Day. State officials have confirmed the fires have claimed at least nine lives and have destroyed about 2,300 homes, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

As of Thursday morning last week, the state had about 240 miles of road closed because of the wildfires. Oregon officials are providing updates about the closures on the state's TripCheck website, which has an interactive road map and other materials.

The state has requested $30 million in federal aid to help cover the cost of road repairs, Seydel said.

One of Oregon’s congressional representatives, Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said last week that he had secured $5 million in relief funding to help cover the cost of repairing road damage from the blazes.

The state’s DOT plans to take a phased approach to reopening fire-damaged roads, many of them two-lane highways in rural areas.

During the initial phase, making sure firefighters and first responders can get where they need to go is a priority and, after that, restoring restricted access for residents in areas that burned. As conditions improve, travel via the damaged roads will gradually return to normal, but Seydel said this is likely to take months in some areas.

She said Oregon DOT has about 230 frontline workers involved in the wildfire response and recovery effort and that contractors are being brought in to assist as well. Seydel also noted that some agency employees have been personally affected by the fires. 

“We do have people who have lost their homes and they are out there on the line,” she said. “They are out there continuing to help.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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