PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A major roadway connecting Salem and Central Oregon has reopened, more than a month after wildfires forced the evacuations of entire towns.
Highway 22 reopened to traffic in the Santiam Canyon at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Sections of the roadway have been closed since Sept. 7 — the day easterly winds roared through the area, whipping the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires into raging infernos.
The Oregon Department of Transportation estimates over 30,000 “hazard trees” have been removed along a 40-mile stretch of Highway 22. Hazard trees are dead, dying or leaning trees damaged by the wildfires that could fall onto the highway.
Don Hamilton with ODOT said roads are only being reopened when officials are “confident we can keep them safe.”
“We’ve gotten to a point where we are comfortable that motorists can be on this road safely and can start to move through the area but we are being very careful, very cautious about this,” he said.
Though the highway is open, travelers should be aware of some changes. The speed limit has been reduced to 40 miles per hour between Gates and Pamelia Creek Road.
Crews are still working on many burned areas throughout the Santiam Canyon so drivers should expect delays. Utility companies are also working in the area to repair power lines. Hamilton said officials are still trying to determine whether any parts of the highway will require long-term repairs.
ODOT says guardrails have also been damaged and there’s an increased risk of falling rocks. Slides and debris flows are also a concern as wet weather returns.
“The combination of fire, followed immediately by rain coming into the fall is very dangerous,” Hamilton said. “The fire has removed a lot of the underbrush in the area and this makes it much more susceptible to slides, especially with a lot of rain.”
Since many businesses and other stops were damaged or destroyed by the fires, travelers should plan on filling their gas tanks before entering the Santiam Canyon and bring plenty of water and food because delays are likely.
“We need people in these areas to be careful,” said Hamilton. “The roads are safe but that doesn’t mean there aren’t continued threats in some of the areas. We need people to be very careful moving through these areas.”
Follow KOIN 6 for the latest news and weather