Task Force hazard tree removal complete along OR-224, but further safety issues remain
The Labor Day 2020 wildfires burned more than a million acres of Oregon land, forever altering Oregon’s forests and natural landscapes, and, in some areas, destroying entire communities.
More than a year later, the Debris Management Task Force has made significant progress and nearly completed the arduous task of clearing ash and debris from nearly 3,000 homes and businesses and removing dead and dying hazard trees from more than 140 miles of state highways and near communities working to rebuild.
In most areas of the state, communities of people have seen the progress to keep Oregon safe firsthand: Residents have watched dead or dying trees be removed to reveal new views of the rivers, biologists are seeing fish habitats be restored and families are readying to move into their new homes.
Along the Clackamas River east of Estacada, however, the Riverside Fire tore through with such severity that damage was too severe to allow public access while crews work to repair the area along OR-224.
The fire burned so hot that rock walls of the canyon’s cliffs were structurally altered. Trees that once stood more than 150-feet tall fell while burning and melted into the pavement. Every foot of guardrail was burned beyond repair. At least one U.S. Forest Service-owned boat ramp was lost completely.
Initial assessments indicated that as many as 100,000 trees – thousands of which were perched 1,500 feet above the roadway – would have to be removed.
Every tree burned in the wildfires along state highways was assessed by multiple certified arborists, but on Highway 224, even assessing the trees was an added challenge, with several hundred being examined using drones and Lidar technology.
This week, ODOT-led Task Force crews will wrap up hazard tree operations – nearly a year after starting operations and ahead of the initial 18-month estimated timeframe. Salvage log removal and some additional chip processing and cleanup efforts will continue for a few more weeks, but the tree removal and processing is now complete.
A conservative, methodical approach to assessing the hazard trees resulted in fewer than 17,500 trees ultimately needing to be removed, but the damage to the canyon and the roadway far exceeded just the hazard trees.
Extensive rockslides in the area continue to further impact the already damaged roadway and maintenance operations to repair the road and safety features (i.e. guardrails, signage and striping) could not begin until after these rockslides were mitigated. Additionally, all Forest Service-managed river access points along the corridor remain closed indefinitely due to fire damage.
With Task Force work complete, the ODOT Region 1 maintenance office is mobilizing contractors to address these ongoing roadway challenges and make the necessary safety repairs as quickly as possible. Congruently, the Forest Service is working on danger tree abatement on their sites and roads and necessary recreation site repairs.
Although significant progress has been made to date, due to wet weather impacts in the winter months and the ongoing potential for rock and debris slides into the highway, there is currently no definitive timeline for reopening the highway given the ongoing safety risks.
ODOT Region 1 will continue to work with the Forest Service Mt. Hood District staff to assess the corridor and will provide updates on the progress after the new year as they develop a better understanding of what those impacts will entail.