By Greg Stiles

(Medford) Mail Tribune

Trucking companies expect snowstorms in winter to interrupt the flow between California and Oregon, but a wildfire shutting down Interstate 5 for days wasn’t something shippers or their customers were expecting before Wednesday’s Delta fire broke out between Dunsmuir and Shasta Lake.

A head-on collision on the Highway 299 detour involving a truck only added to the angst.

Southern Oregon retailers have encountered delayed shipments because of the closure of a major artery, which officials announced Friday would continue through the weekend. But so far, they’ve dodged what could have resulted in a shortage of supplies because many deliveries come from the Willamette Valley, to the north.

For trucking firms, however, limitations on driver hours and the circuitous detours have created a logistical train wreck.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Jacob Gooding, who works in sales and dispatching for Hansen & Sons Trucking in Medford. “Technically, this is worse than what we see in the winter, because it’s busier; everything is a little slower then, and you can plan for it. This time of the year, you can never have enough trucks and trailers.”

From Southern California to Salinas south of the Bay Area, produce is funneled up I-5. While Highways 99 and 101 parallel I-5 through much of California, by the time the freeway hits Redding, California, 99 has run its course as a separate thoroughfare, and 101 has veered off to the coast. The route runs past Shasta Lake and through a series of canyons and mountains not far from the Union Pacific tracks. The Delta fire created a choke point, forcing trucks with perishable food, other commodities and freight to turn around and wind their way east to Burney and then switch back to Mount Shasta on Highway 89.

“Everybody and their mom went that direction, and of course, it created a domino effect for everybody,” Gooding said. “The closure has created a huge supply and demand situation with warehouses doubling up, and two or three unloads turning into five or six. The warehouses that have received everything, they get full, and the warehouses have to redistribute.

“We’ve had to bite the bullet and back up,” he said. “We’re a couple days’ behind, but it is what it is, and there’s nothing we really can do about it.”

Hansen & Sons Trucking runs about 50 trucks through the Shasta corridor in a given week and delivers to Food 4 Less, Harry & David and Fresh Express, among others.

Jeff Lisac, the produce manager at Food 4 Less, considered the closure delaying produce from Fresno, California, more of an inconvenience.

“There are little things here and there, but nothing big,” he said. “We would normally get a delivery at 9 a.m., but now, we’re not getting it until 12 or 1.

“Normally, we have help scheduled all day long,” Lisac said. “But our morning crew goes home at 2 p.m.”

The 159-mile detour creates additional costs and concerns, Combined Transport owner Mike Card said.

“You’re looking at an additional half-day delay in delivering loads because you’re not going 60 miles an hour up 299,” said Card, whose Blackwell Trucking unit carries produce in refrigerated trucks.

A tightly knit schedule unravels quickly, he said.

“A lot of truck schedules are set for just-in-time delivery,” Card said. “So when you are missing an appointment by four hours, you may not get a new appointment for the next day. Or the driver may be out of service four hours sooner than anticipated. That’s a bigger issue.”

Federal regulations require a 10-hour break for drivers once they hit their daily quota, meaning their loads often sit while they sleep.

Joe DeSimone, of Silver Springs Trucking in Central Point, said the uncertain conditions have caused some drivers to not hit the road.

“It’s just frustrating for everybody,” DeSimone said. “Everything is time-sensitive, and we have a hard enough time when they shut down the road for a few hours in the winter for weather, let alone two or three days due to a fire.”

DeSimone said Silver Springs had to pass on carrying a banana shipment from Southern California to Portland this week, while transferring a load of supplies bound for Amy’s Kitchen on to two other trucks near Redding.

In the short-term, retail chains and restaurant suppliers such as Sysco are able to avoid running low on product by rerouting supplies from points north. That might not be true of everyone if additional routes were closed.

“If a grocer hasn’t purchased food correctly, I can see potential shortages until the road is opened and logistics get back to speed,” said Card, a former president of the American Trucking Association.

“If you’re talking about frozen food, it won’t be damaged, but fresh food sitting for an additional day could have some quality issues because it’s taking longer to get to market,” he said.

When Emile Amarotico, Ashland Food Co-op general manager, got word I-5 was shut down south of Dunsmuir, he steeled himself for a worst-case scenario.

“We had three-hour delays Thursday, and I expected to hear the same today, but when I got in, today’s shipments came from the Portland area,” Amarotico said Friday.

United Natural Foods Inc. has warehouses in Sacramento and Portland with shipments coming from California twice a week and four from Portland. That brought relief, but the images Amarotico said he saw of the fire were seared into his mind.

“I confess my first thought wasn’t about operations as much as people,” he said. “Seeing those semis burning on the freeway — in the U.S. — that sounds unfathomable, it was like a war zone.”