When the Old McKenzie Pass Highway opened Monday to motor vehicles, it was the first time in 10 months travelers drove on the scenic byway, which was closed as the result of damage suffered during the Milli Fire.
Deschutes National Forest and Oregon Department of Transportation officials closed the highway Aug. 17 and have since worked to repair a nearly 7-mile stretch of the road and remove burned trees that fell or were at risk of falling.
Ian Reid, Sisters District ranger, said national forest crews had to remove more than 4,000 trees from the area where the Milli Fire burned along the highway. The fire burned more than 24,000 acres in the Three Sisters Wilderness about 7 miles southwest of Sisters.
Salvaged lumber from the burned trees was auctioned off to T2 Inc., a logging company in Sweet Home, Reid said.
In the aftermath of the Milli Fire, the landscape along the Old McKenzie Pass Highway, also called state Highway 242, has substantially changed.
Reid describes it as a mosaic view of burned black trees mixed in with trees that have red needles or are still green. The tree removal opened up new viewpoints along the highway, including clear views of Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson, Reid said.
“It will certainly look different for people used to driving up there for years,” Reid said. “Some people will think it looks ugly, and some people will think it’s part of nature and will appreciate the views of the mountains.”
Travelers will also see some slash piles near the roadside that are planned to be burned in the fall, Reid said.
Other effects of the fire remain. The Black Crater Trail will not be reopened until later this summer. And some campsites had to be changed at Lava Camp Lake campground, Reid said.
Peter Murphy, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the fire left debris and divots on the highway and even melted portions of the road.
“The heat melted the actual asphalt,” Murphy said.
ODOT crews are continuing to clear the shoulders of the road, which Murphy said is a critical part of maintaining a historic byway.
“If you go off one of those shoulders, you are down a number of yards into a steep gully,” Murphy said. “Shoulder work is more important than it might seem.”
Last month, ODOT crews made the highway available to bicycles and motorist on the weekends. But it discouraged them from using the road while crews worked during the week.
All travelers are now welcome to use the highway this summer.
The 37-mile scenic route, with a summit at 5,325-feet elevation, traditionally closes in mid-November due to the difficulty of removing snow, Murphy said.
The earliest closure of McKenzie Pass Highway was Oct. 18, 1996. The latest closure was Jan. 10, 1939, according to state transportation records.
The highway usually opens in June and averages about 350 vehicles per day. Vehicles longer than 35 feet are not allowed at any time on the highway.
The road’s shortest season was in 1999, when it was only open 90 days, beating the previous record of 120 days set in 1979.
McKenzie Pass was the main route between Eugene and Bend but became a seasonal highway in 1962, when construction finished on state Highway 126.
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