A vehicle drives toward the coast near Gales Creek on Highway 6. Photo: Brenda Schaffer

Traffic and fires and COVID, oh my. 

Those are some of the top concerns public officials from a number of government agencies locally and across the state are gearing up for this weekend as a multitude of factors combine to potentially throw a wrench into holiday plans. 

A September heat wave will see temperatures reach into the upper 90’s, leaving the Oregon Department of Forestry and local fire agencies concerned about wildfires; ODOT and local emergency service providers are concerned about heavy traffic, especially on Highways 6 and 26; and the Oregon Health Authority and local health agencies are urging Oregonians to maintain their social distance and mask up during family gatherings this weekend. 

“At least for this weekend, we are staying at High fire danger in the Tillamook State Forest,” said ODF Forest Grove District Forester Mike Cafferata. He said that fire prevention gates installed at several forest roads in the Highways 6 and 26 corridors may be closed, including the North Fork of Wolf Creek Road, McGregor Road, and Music road near Highway 26 beginning Friday September 4, and Storeyburn Road, Drift Creek Road, and Idiot Creek Road off of Highway 6, which are expected to stay open unless there is a significant uptick in fire danger, or there is a fire in the area. 

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All of these areas are still open to foot traffic, including hunting activities. 

Forest Grove Fire & Rescue public information officer Dave Nemeyer also expressed concern about wildfire in the forests, specifically human-caused wildfire. 

“With the extended heat wave, fire weather warnings, and limited recreation opportunities, people are flocking to the state forests,” he said in a message to the Gales Creek Journal.

“Overwhelmingly, our wildfire problem here is because of human caused incidents. So we want people to be smart, carry water or a fire extinguisher, and have a shovel in the car, even if all they're doing is hiking a trail. They could come across something that could be stopped with those simple tools,” he said. 

The Banks Fire District issued a statement echoing similar concerns.

“The hot, dry weather has produced a “High” fire danger in our area, and we ask that you keep that in mind when recreating,” Scott Adams, a public information officer for the district said in an email to the Journal. “When the fire danger is “High” it is permissible to have recreational/warming fires and use BBQs. However, recreational/warming fires should be no larger than necessary to cook. Remember to always attend your fire and have a water source or fire extinguisher and a shovel immediately available,” he said. 

Adams added that fires should be completely extinguished when no longer in use. 

“With the increasing temperatures over the next week, the fire danger level is expected to increase. If the levels go to “Extreme”, all outdoor fire and cooking will be prohibited so keep informed about current levels. Also, please remember to stay well hydrated during hot weather.”

As for traffic along Highway 6 and 26, it’s expected to be, to use a technical term, gnarly. Both fire and rescue agencies in our region tasked with responding to traffic crashes told the Journal that they are expecting heavy traffic over the weekend and the holiday impact as motorists head to and from the Oregon coast. 

“Heavy traffic is expected on Highways 6 and 26 and travel time will increase. Please plan for potential delays. As always have fun, enjoy our beautiful area, and most importantly, be safe,” Adams said. 

“We know people are going to be heading to the coast,” said Forest Grove’s Nemeyer. “So we want to see everyone drive with patience, slow down, give themselves plenty of time, and be safe.  There is horrible cell reception on Highway 6, so they need to be ready for anything if they're using that route to get to the cooler coast.”

Motorists should also plan ahead when it comes to celebrating with drugs or alcohol and driving; the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said that multiple area agencies are banding together over the weekend to focus on targeting drivers on major roadways — including Highway 26 and others — who choose to drive under the influence. 

“If you decide to celebrate the holiday weekend with alcohol or drugs, please be safe and avoid getting behind the wheel. Make plans beforehand to get a ride from a sober friend, use public transportation, call a taxi, or use a ridesharing service, the law enforcement agency said in a press release. 

The Oregon Department of Transportation issued a warning that traffic to the coast and, for those headed east to the Columbia River Gorge, will require patience. 

“This weekend, travelers should expect heavy and slow traffic, especially at the beginning and end of the weekend. Travelers should look for slow traffic in the small towns and cities on the Coast, in the Gorge and pretty much everywhere else in the Portland area,” a press release from ODOT read

And if you gather with friends and family, the Oregon Health Authority is asking Oregonians to follow social distancing and to rethink traditional gatherings. 

“Labor Day weekend is normally a time of celebrations, reunions and family vacations. This year, though, it’s important to reconsider the activities you engage in with friends and family,” the agency said. 

“We’ve seen the number of people infected with COVID-19 spike after Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays. To keep our communities healthy and to be able to reopen schools statewide, we need to avoid that happening this holiday weekend. This means staying close to home, spending time with members of our household, avoiding crowds, and following public health guidance.”