A hastily organized push to clear trees killed during the Milli Fire is nearing completion west of Sisters.
Sparked by lightning in early August, the Milli Fire burned more than 24,000 acres, including a roughly 7-mile stretch along the McKenzie Pass Highway, state Highway 242.
Representatives of the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon Department of Transportation and others started planning the post-fire cleanup while the Milli Fire was still actively burning, and local loggers have spent the past three weeks cutting trees at risk of falling onto the highway. Tree removal work is expected to be finished Friday, even as a handful of stumps along the highway are still smoldering.
Deschutes National Forest forester Steven Orange said he said he and others with the Forest Service went tree-by-tree through the area, deciding which would stay standing and which should be removed.
Several thousand trees removed from the roadside are being stored nearby, he said, and will be auctioned off for lumber.
Once the primary road between the Willamette Valley and Central Oregon, McKenzie Pass Highway now carries only a tiny fraction of the traffic on nearby U.S. Highway 20. Primarily used for sightseeing and access to trails and other recreational spots, McKenzie Pass Highway crosses the Cascades through the lava flow where the Dee Wright Observatory stands.
Peter Murphy, spokesman for ODOT in Central Oregon, said because the highway is considered a scenic byway, the right-of-way along either side of the road was never cleared of trees in the way it would be along a primary highway. As a result, he said the road is unusually vulnerable to falling trees now that the fire has passed.
Murphy said it does not appear likely ODOT will be opening the road to vehicles or cyclists before spring. During most years, ODOT closes the snow gate around November 1, he said, allowing cyclists a traffic-free place to pedal until the snow arrives.
Once cyclists and others return to the area, they’ll find the views along the narrow, winding highway have changed. The fire has opened up vistas of Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington to the north, and at points, portions of the once-hidden old McKenzie Wagon Road can now be seen.
Along the steep bank to the south of the highway, many larger trees have been felled and left lying across the slope, where Orange said they’ll serve to help contain erosion. Stumps have been left tall to help catch any trees that might roll down the hill, he said, and the roots of dead trees both removed and still-standing should help stabilize the soil until new growth can be established.
Thousands of blackened and presumably dead smaller diameter trees remain standing.
Murphy said even if ODOT doesn’t reopen the highway before winter, it’s still critical to get standing snags cleared before snow starts falling. Any trees that fell across the road during winter could present a hazard to the snowplows ODOT uses to partially clear the road in spring before opening the snow gate. He said it’s anticipated ODOT may have to clear mud and other debris that slides in to the road as the snow melts before the route is fully opened next year.
Orange said had the Forest Service waited until spring to start removing trees damaged by the Milli Fire, it may have been difficult to open the highway at all next year.
Most recreational spots in the area burned this year are expected to be accessible to the public next year.
The portion of the Pacific Crest Trail running through the fire area was not significantly damaged, but a number of trails feeding in to it will require some degree of rehabilitation, said Amy Tinderholt, deputy district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District.
Tinderholt said the Forest Service expects the Black Crater trail to remain closed next year while officials determine whether it should be repaired or relocated. Similarly, four of the 11 developed campsites at Lava Camp Lake will be closed due to the risk of falling snags.
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