Highway 224 to reopen more than a year after Riverside Fire
More than a year after the Riverside Fire scorched the forests near Estacada, Highway 224 is scheduled to reopen Sunday, May 1, but those hankering for a hike or weekend camping outing will be disappointed.
"May 1, when 224 reopens, there (are) going to be limited opportunities up here," said Benjamin Watts, the West Zone Recreation Program Manager on the Mt. Hood National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service.
Watts said some "river access points will be open," including some informal spots along the highway, so people could still raft or kayak on the Clackamas. Boat ramps will also be limited; Hole in the Wall and Moore Creek boat ramps will be open, but others will remain closed.
For land-based visitors, hiking trails and campgrounds are scheduled to remain closed as well, and other recreational areas will be restricted.
Both the Clackamas River Trail and the Riverside Trail "in particular are extremely dangerous in many parts. The Riverside Trail lost six bridges, and may take several years to reopen," the Forest Service said in an information packet.
The 11 campgrounds along the stretch of won't be open, even for day use, when the road reopens, Watts said.
Miles of remediation
The 138,000-acre Riverside Fire burned for months in late 2020, charring the forest and claiming numerous homes and other structures but not causing any deaths. The fire came within a half-mile of Estacada city limits and burned more than 10% of Clackamas County's land base.
Nineteen miles of Highway 224 just east of Estacada have been closed since the fall of 2020.
The Oregon Department of Transportation has been working since the fire to clean up the area along Highway 224 and reopen it to traffic.
In that effort, crews continue to remove dead trees, replace signs, install new guardrails and repair and repave the road, all to make the highway safe again.
Falling rocks are a big danger, and "rock scalers" were working on the sheer hillsides as journalists took a tour of the devastation and reopening efforts on Wednesday, April 6, led by representatives from ODOT and the Forest Service.
During the tour, a huge crane helped a crew install heavy-duty netting along the sheer and unstable sides of the road to keep rocks from tumbling down on the highway.
One of the "challenges we faced (is) obviously the terrain," ODOT manager William Ewing said, sweeping his arm toward the steep, craggy hillsides along the scenic road.
60,000 trees removed
ODOT has removed around 60,000 trees that threatened safety on Highway 224. The agency estimates about 90% of the trees along the road died as a result of the fire.
Many sections of guardrail were also damaged, but about 12 miles of shiny new guardrails have been installed.
Crews will still be working along Highway 224 after May 1, so "people should expect long delays" if they venture up in the months after the reopening, Ewing said.
The Forest Service recently received federal disaster relief funding to begin taking down trees in campgrounds and on hiking trails and remediate those areas so that one day they will be useable again. Only trees that pose a danger will be removed from recreation areas.
At the Lazy Bend and other campgrounds, the trees are sprayed with blue dots to indicate they are to be taken down.
All of the trees at Fish Creek Campground will need to be removed before it reopens.
Off the highway, some paved areas will have to be resurfaced, as tree roots burned under them and the asphalt collapsed.
ODOT is responsible for Highway 224 until it reaches the Ripplebrook area, where it becomes Forest Road 46, which is under Forest Service jurisdiction.
Forest Road 46 will not be open on May 1 and Forest Service officials said they are not sure when it might reopen. Work on Forest Service Road 46 is tentatively expected to start in a month or so.
People heading up Highway 224 will have to turn around at Ripplebrook, where Forest Service Road 46 starts, and go back down.
Aside from the more immediate impacts of the fire, the resulting closure of the highway dramatically reduced traffic through Estacada and hurt local businesses already squeezed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christian Richartz, executive director of the Estacada Chamber of Commerce, said "the community is open" and urged people to visit Estacada's sights, brew and cider pubs and other businesses.
"We're dog-friendly," she added.
Sherry Andrus, owner of the popular Cazadero Steakhouse on Highway 224 in Estacada, said she and her staff are thrilled the road will be opening soon.
"The closure of 224 has severely affected our business. We see a 30% increase in business during the summer months for the campers that go up 224," Andrus said.
"I understand that most of the campgrounds are no longer there, but I am sure that there will still be plenty of river traffic ... and that we will be seeing an increase in sales from them. Our whole team at The Caz can't wait for May 1. Last summer was very hard without that being open."
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