SISTERS, Ore. - (Update: Comments from fire manager, traveler)
About 1,000 firefighters are battling 14 wildfires burning in the Willamette National Forest, affecting Labor Day weekend traffic and activities.
The Oregon Department of Transportation advised on Friday that motorists traveling between the Willamette Valley and Central Oregon should be prepared for long delays on Oregon highways because of wildland firefighting activities.
The Southwest Incident Management Team is currently stationed at Hoodoo Ski Resort and is coordinating the fire fight.
Motorists on Highway 22 from Salem are seeing heavy smoke from the 11,000-acre Whitewater fire, while the area along Highway 126 West from Eugene has three wildfires: the Avenue, Roney and Separation fires are all burning along the route.
Officials from Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch in Redmond said the Nash Fire burning in the Willamette National Forest grew together into one fire Friday.
The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office has issued a Level 2 evacuation notification for the Elk Lake and Hosmer Lake areas and a Level 1 notification for the Lava Lake area.
An ODOT pilot car is in place for daytime traffic on Highway 20 because of the Potato Hill Fire, at 165 acres at last report.
"That fire is burning in an old fire scar, believe it was the B&B Fire, so it's one of the fires that is less active than some of the other fires that were managing," said Jayson Coil, operation manager for the Southwest Incident Management Team. "We do have a line around the majority of the fire. We also have a couple of spots outside of that line from a couple of snags burning."
Kelsey Gasper and her family woke up Friday morning and drove from Hillsboro to stay with family in Bend for the Labor Day weekend.
Gasper drove on Highway 20 and waited to get through Santiam Pass.
"We waited about 20 minutes," Gasper said. "We hadn't heard it was going to be that bad, and we just did Google Maps on our phone, and it said it was faster than Mount Hood, so that is why we came this way."
She said she was surprised more drivers weren't on the road and that she'll check road conditions before she heads back home.
Areas around the OR 22/U.S. 20 route from Detroit Lake, through Santiam Pass and to Sisters are experiencing a number of active wildfires that are causing road closures and delays. Motorists traveling over the Cascades during the busy Labor Day weekend need to know before they go by checking TripCheck.com.
The busy U.S. 20 corridor over Santiam Pass has been particularly affected by the fires. Just west of the pass, ODOT has been forced to use a pilot car to direct two-way traffic for 1.5 miles on U.S. 20 (mileposts 76-77.4) because of fire fighting activities.
Travelers should expect flagging with a pilot car that will be used from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. While both lanes are open in the evening between 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the flagging with a pilot car could be activated at any time depending on the fire situation.
The long delays are necessary to protect the traveling public and assist firefighters. During the day, wildland agencies are cutting burning snags, using helicopter water drops and moving equipment that is impacting U.S. 20. Travelers should consider alternative routes or expect long delays.
These delays are expected to continue over the next few days as temperatures soar, and the fire behavior and fire danger increases. Motorists are urged to be very careful driving through or parking around dry grass or brush. Hot exhaust pipes can start the grass on fire. You may not even notice the fire until it's too late.