State transportation crews help keep travelers safe during fires


Efforts also help reduce chance of fires in the first place

Wildfires keep everyone busy in Oregon, including staff members with the Oregon Department of Transportation. Maintenance crews, for example, are often called to close roads, re-direct traffic or help other agencies with tree removal and more. In late summer, the work ODOT crews do was praised for a different reason – helping prevent wildfires.

In August, the Oregon Department of Forestry praised ODOT’s Region 3 (southern Oregon) crews for making their lives a bit easier – helping avoid several potentially major fires along busy Interstate 5. One tweet from ODF said:

“Prevention + quick response = success! 6 small fires reported along I-5 on Sunday a.m. between Gold Hill & Grants Pass were stopped at ¼ acre or less. Fuels reduction work performed by ODOT over last winter and spring contributed greatly to firefighters’ success.”

Responses from the public included this from Stu: “Great job by all the agencies involved. Also thank you for doing it safely along I-5.  Yes, job well done indeed.” Kevin W. wrote, “Great job ODOT and ODF.” Christel A. wrote, “Congrats and thank you!”

The story was covered in the local media and ODOT Region 3 Public Information Officer Gary Leaming was proud to note, “Our fire clearing last winter really helped keep these fires small.”

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fires. They say it is mostly likely from vehicles – either chains dragging on pavement or faulty catalytic converters throwing sparks. Thankfully, none of these became bigger challenges.

Forestry crews fought roadside fires this summer that could have been worse if not for the spring cleanup efforts of ODOT Maintenance crews. Photo courtesy Oregon Department of Forestry.

We’re ready to help

Other wildfires in Oregon and those facing our neighbors to the south kept ODOT crews engaged.

“We were on standby with Caltrans on the Mill Fire near Weed with a possible I-5 closure,” Leaming said. Southern Oregon crews also waited to see if they could help with the Rum Creek fire near Galice, but it was far enough off main roads that crews weren’t called in.

In eastern Oregon, ODOT crews assisted firefighters by providing portable variable message signs, used to inform travelers.

“We helped them make sure the traveling public did not end up in an evacuation area,” said Robin Berheim, manager in ODOT’s Pendleton office.

In the Willamette Valley, crews did more prep work early in the year. And then, the Cedar Creek fire hit.

“Our Oakridge crew worked round the clock starting Friday night, Sept. 9, when Highway 58 was closed and Oakridge was evacuated due to the Cedar Creek Fire,” said Jim Gamble, ODOT District 5 manager. “That decision was made working very closely with USFS fire crews and local police agencies from Oakridge, Lane County and Oregon State Police. When the east winds eased and the imminent danger to the public subsided, crews were able to open Highway 58 to all lanes on Sept. 12.”

Even though skies are still smoky from this year’s remaining fires, it’s clear that it takes all of us working together to keep Oregon safe – and green.

About Author

Shelley Snow is the Strategic Communications Coordinator with Oregon Department of Transportation

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