The only route into one of the most popular campgrounds in the Ochoco National Forest is closed to large vehicles, prompting questions about fire suppression, trash collection and more.

A routine bridge inspection in August revealed rotting timbers at the base of Wildcat Camp Bridge, a 28-foot-long, one-lane bridge that happens to be the only road into the popular Wildcat campground. The discovery prompted the U.S. Forest Service to impose a 5-ton limit on vehicles using the bridge last week.

Jill Welborn, acting public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland, said the restriction wouldn’t affect most vehicles, but could limit access for large RVs, garbage trucks, certain fire trucks and vault toilet pumpers.

The weakened bridge points to a looming issue in Oregon’s national forests, where many bridges are approaching 50 years old and need expensive repairs.

“In the last few years, as our bridges get older, we’re seeing more (problems),” said Peggy Fisher, forest engineer for the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests.

Because of its proximity to Prineville and the Mill Creek Wilderness, Wildcat campground is one of the more popular spots in the forest, Welborn said. The campground has room for RVs and 17 traditional campsites.

Chad Houchin, bridge inspection program manager for the Forest Service, said the agency inspects older bridges every 24 months in compliance with Federal Highway Administration standards. A late-August inspection turned up issues with the wooden support columns under the bridge. Fisher added that the bridge likely wouldn’t completely collapse, but could buckle under continued pressure.

The bridge was built during the 1950s, and Fisher said it frequently sees very wet and very dry conditions, exacerbating the impact on the wood.

“It’s not surprising that, at that age, we’re starting to see decay,” Fisher said.

Unfortunately, a number of other Forest Service bridges across Oregon are approaching the same age. Fisher, who also conducts bridge inspections on the Deschutes and Siuslaw national forests, inspects between 50 and 65 federally managed bridges per year. She said the majority of the bridges were constructed prior to the 1970s, and many are in need of maintenance.

Across Oregon, 107 of 1,232 federally owned bridges were rated poor or structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration in 2017.

Bridge repair competes with other routine maintenance projects in the national forest, and there’s not always enough money to go around, Fisher said.

For Wildcat Camp Bridge, Fisher said the Forest Service determined there’s no imminent danger to vehicles weighing less than 5 tons. She added that wood deteriorates at an exponential rate, and the bridge will ultimately have to be replaced or closed.

“We’re hoping lighter loads will not impact it as much,” Fisher said. “But the wood will continue to decay.”

The Forest Service has to find workarounds for garbage trucks, toilet pump trucks and certain firetrucks.

Large garbage cans may be rolled to the other side of the bridge to keep garbage trucks from using it, but servicing the campground’s four vault toilets may be more of a challenge. Fisher said the Forest Service is working with contractors to come up with a solution.

For fire suppression, the Forest Service has alternatives to large fire trucks, including using aircraft and smaller engines, Welborn said. For a truly large wildfire in the area, there would likely be other points of access, she said.

“The instances where we would need to get a very large truck in there would be very rare,” Welborn said.

Welborn said the Forest Service put up signs by the bridge to let drivers know about the weight restrictions. Going forward, Fisher said she hopes the agency can get additional federal funding to fix the bridge, which would allow construction to begin as soon as next spring. Otherwise, she said the bridge could be out of commission for much longer.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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