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19 months after a wildfire shut it down, Highway 224 reopens May 1

The Oregon Department of Transportation is almost ready to reopen a 9-mile stretch of Highway 224 that has been closed since September 2020.

ESTACADA, Ore. — More than a year and a half after the Riverside Fire forced evacuations and road closures near Estacada in September 2020, a 19-mile stretch of Oregon Highway 224 is finally about to reopen. The shuttered segment will be back in service May 1.

That's good news for people who love the outdoors, want access to more of the Clackamas River, or are just curious to see what the forest in the area looks like after the fire, according to Christina Richartz, executive director of Visit Estacada and the local Chamber of Commerce. Estacada serves as an outpost for people gearing to explore the surrounding area, she said.

On Wednesday, KGW went on a tour of the highway and the nearby closed-off areas to see the extent of the damage, as well as the progress work crews have made to repair it. Representatives from the Oregon Department of Transportation and the U.S. Forest Service headed up the tour.

RELATED: 'We'll get it opened as soon as we can': Highway 224 closure hurting Estacada businesses

The first stop was Lazy Bend Campground. Before the fire, it was the most developed campground in the corridor, with running water and electricity. Now, it's unrecognizable.

"This is pretty representative of our fire impacted rec sites as a whole, up and down the 224 corridor," said Ben Watts, a recreation program manager on the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Burned trees and dumpsters were still visible in the campsite. Forest Service and ODOT officials said there is still a lot of work to be done to repair the damage.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
Lazy Bend Campground off Highway 224

"You look at the steep cliffs along the highways through here, [it] leads to a lot of rockfall dangers," said Will Ewing, a maintenance manager for ODOT. "That's been one of the biggest struggles for us to get this piece of highway open again, has been the rockfall hazards."

Crews have been busy mitigating tree and rockfall hazards in an effort to get the highway back open, as well as installing roughly 11 miles of new guardrail. The work will continue in the summer, when crews will be doing a lot of road paving.

Near milepost 36, the tour caravan came to a stop at a site where crews were doing rockfall work. Ewing said drivers should expect these types of delays even after Highway 224 reopens in May.

"There’s still another six to seven rockfall areas that we have to worn on through this summer. This is not going to be the last of it," he said.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
Crews putting up netting to catch rockfalls

Further down Highway 224, the tour arrived at the last campground in the corridor: Fish Creek Campground, which isn't estimated to be back to full operation for another four to six years.

It's in an area where up to 90% of trees were killed during the fire, according to Heather Ibsen with the U.S. Forest Service, which is why it’ll take years to fully restore the campground and trailheads nearby.

Another Forest Service representative said there are 11 campgrounds and three trailheads along Highway 224. The Riverside and Lionshead fires affected a total of 24 recreation sites, 26 trail heads and over 30 trails, Watts said.

RELATED: Highway 224 to remain closed, possibly for months due to wildfire damage

"The May 1 opening of 224, there's going to be limited opportunities up here," Watts said. "The big gains in recreation access is when the Forest Service is going to be able to open the remainder of our Forest Service roads."

It's unclear how long it'll be until Forest Service Roads 46 and 57 are reopened. The Forest Service is still working to clear out damaged trees.

Ibsen said the timeline to clear those trees has stretched out because the process to get federal money has had to go through Congress and has taken longer. 

Congress has allocated $76 million to the Mt. Hood National Forest to help cleanup and fix the damage, he said, but the damage costs are well over $100 million and Forest Service’s budget is only a fraction of that.

Credit: Christine Pitawanich/KGW
View of Highway 224 and hillside beyond

In the meantime, Ewing said the reopened Highway 224 will essentially be a dead end until the Forest Service Roads reopen, and drivers will have to turn around near the Ripplebrook ranger station.

ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton said it’s also unclear how much the cleanup will cost because there’s still so much work to be done. The agency will rely on state and federal dollars as much as possible to pay for restoration efforts, he said.

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