Estecada, Ore. (KOIN) — For two straight summers, wildfires scorched over 500,000 acres in and around the Mt. Hood National Forest. Now, nearly two years after the first flames appeared, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Mt. Hood National Forest are ready to welcome visitors back to the area, albeit on a very limited scale.  

On May 1, ODOT will open Oregon Highway 224 east of Estacada 20 miles east to Ripplebrook after clearing thousands of burned trees and conducting hours of rockfall mitigation.  

“We can’t have the public or anyone getting in there because of the high danger,” Will Ewing, a maintenance manager in ODOT’s district two said. “There’s still another six or seven rockfall areas we have to work on through this summer. This is not going to be the last of it.” 

Ewing said some of the roadway is like a “warzone” and there is still repaving to be done in the summer, as the highway is cratered in many areas under rockfall-prone cliffs. Rockfall mitigation will still cause single-lane closures throughout the summer.  

  • ODOT, Forest Service show off work to re-open OR 224
  • ODOT, Forest Service show off work to re-open OR 224

The area past Ripplebrook has been a popular outdoor destination in the summer but returning to the point of becoming fully usable again will likely take around five years, says Ben Watts, the outdoor recreation program manager for the West region of the Mt. Hood National Forest. 

“There’s going to be limited opportunities up here,” Watts said. He added “the big gains in recreation access are going to be when the forest is able to open the remainder of their forest service roads.”  

The long hours of work along Highway 224 pales in comparison to the seemingly endless task of clearing Forest Service roads. The weaving network of roads through the once-dense forest has so many trees, USFS will likely never be able to get to them all.  

“If we’re going to open roads that are fairly low-traffic roads, how much treatment if any treatment do we provide or do we just advise of the risks before you go? Those are some of the things we are trying to factor in” said Curtis Booher, the Clackamas River District Ranger. 

Even further hamstringing the USFS efforts is funding. ODOT doesn’t know what the final tab for the work will be at this point but is working to use as much federal disaster relief money as possible. The U.S Forest Service has $76 million of congressionally approved money to use but, it couldn’t be used until May 2022.  

The priority for work for the USFS is clearing the recreation areas, like boat ramps, trails, trailheads, and campgrounds, cleared of dead trees and cleaned up so people can safely use them.  

Some sites will take months, some will take years.  

“Some sites we need to get involved with our engineers and rebuild facilities and water systems. Other sites, it’s just a matter of mitigating the hazard trees so, there’s sort of a scale there,” Watts said.  

Clackamas County residents won’t soon forget the devastating Beachie Creek and Lionshead complex fires.

Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith was among those forced to evacuate. She stayed away for more than a month.

“What I saw was horrific and it was dangerous,” Smith told KOIN 6 News in February. She added the danger still remains on Highway 224.