A week without Highway 26

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin

It’s hard to make a latte without milk.

So when the Waterman Complex Fire forced the Oregon Department of Transportation to close U.S. Highway 26 between Prineville and Mitchell for a week, Christy Hudspeth, owner of Route 26 Espresso in Mitchell, took a long detour to go on a milk run.

She normally drives about 80 miles to Bend to buy milk and stock up on other groceries and supplies for her coffee shop. But with the highway closed Monday, she ended up going 340 miles round-trip — passing through Fossil, Antelope, Madras, Redmond and Prineville.

“I told my husband we could have been halfway to Colorado,” she said.

The ride was so long in part because they weren’t just going for milk, although they did haul home 25 gallons. They went into Prineville to pick up prescription medicines for people in Mitchell, a town of about 130. When U.S. Highway 26 is open, the drive between Prineville and Mitchell is less than 50 miles.

Wildfire burned on both sides of the highway for about 3½ miles as it passes over the Ochoco Summit, prompting the closure. The Waterman Complex Fire consists of four fires, all started by lightning July 11, including the Bailey Butte Fire that burned alongthe highway. The closure started late July 14 and lasted until late Tuesday.

Pilot cars guided traffic through one lane until Wednesday morning when ODOT reopened both lanes, with speeds limited to 35 mph.

“We had fire on the highway and trees falling on it so it was in the best interest of safety to close it,” said Peter Murphy, an ODOT spokesman. He called the length of the closure “extraordinary” but said it was necessary because of the danger posed by the trees and the amount of firefighter traffic on the highway during the height of the blaze.

Once the flames had passed, firefighters were busy cutting trees at risk of falling onto the highway, said Pam Sichting, spokeswoman for Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team No. 3, which is managing the Waterman Complex Fire.

“We wanted to make sure it was nice and safe,” she said.

Firefighters cut 115 trees along the highway at Ochoco Summit, as well as 15 in the Ochoco Divide Campground and 30 at the Bandit Springs Rest Area, she said.

Along with closing U.S. Highway 26, the Waterman Complex Fire prompted evacuation orders from the Crook County Sheriff’s Office for more than two dozen homes in the Mark’s Creek area. The homes line the highway west of Ochoco Summit.

“We’ve had a heck of a week,” said Deborah Krause, who lives in Mark’s Creek.

Despite the order to evacuate, she said most of the Mark’s Creek residents decided to stay in their homes.

“We were pretty much sheltering in place until we saw flames,” she said.

After downgrading the evacuation warnings earlier this week, the sheriff’s office fully lifted them Wednesday morning.

While the highway closure, which covered 13 miles at one point , also affected the Mark’s Creek residents, it mainly affected people in Mitchell, Krause said.

U.S. Highway 26 serves as the main route from Central Oregon to the Painted Hills, which are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. “Visitation was definitely down (during the closure), particularly at the Painted Hills Unit because it was just so difficult to get there,” said Shelley Hall, superintendent of the Fossil Beds.

Hudspeth’s coffee shop is only four miles from the Painted Hills and, like other businesses in Mitchell, she relies on visitors stopping by on their way to and from the hills. This is usually a busy time of year, making up for the slow months in the winter.

“We really depend on summer traffic here,” she said. “All the businesses do here.”

During the closure, she said, her sales dropped to about a quarter of normal, to less than a $100 per day. Sales weren’t completely ruined for the week though, thanks to a local rancher offering to pick up the tab of any firefighter ordering a cup of coffee. Now that the closure is over, Hudspeth is waiting for business to return to its typical summer level.

“There is still not a lot of traffic yet, a lot of people don’t know it is open or they have canceled their plans to come this direction,” Hudspeth said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. In the original article, the county that issued the evacuation orders was misstated. The Bulletin regrets the error.

InciWeb / Courtesy photo The Bailey Butte Fire, part of the Waterman Complex, forced the closure of U.S Highway 26 between Mitchell and Prineville for a week.
Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin The road was blocked on the westbound lane of Highway 26 as it was closed earlier this week due to a wildfire in the Waterman Complex. The closure made travel between Central Oregon and Mitchell difficult. Christy Hudspeth, owner of Route 26 Espresso in Mitchell, said her trip to Bend, normally 160 miles round trip, turned into a trek of 340 miles.
Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin The road was blocked on the westbound lane of Highway 26 as it was closed earlier this week due to a wildfire in the Waterman Complex. The closure made travel between Central Oregon and Mitchell difficult. Christy Hudspeth, owner of Route 26 Espresso in Mitchell, said her trip to Bend, normally 160 miles round trip, turned into a trek of 340 miles.