UPDATE (7:10 a.m. PST Friday) Oregon Department of Transportation officials said Thursday that woes about the closure of Interstate 84 could continue well into this winter.
Scalers hung from slopes Thursday as they worked to remove rocks that are at risk of crumbling onto I-84 in the Columbia River Gorge.
They’ve been at this slope near the Bonneville Dam for days now, working as quickly as possible to remove damaged trees and rocks that had prevented ODOT from re-opening the interstate between Hood River and Troutdale.
The highway closed Sept. 4 because of the Eagle Creek Fire. Officials reopened the westbound lanes of the highway from Hood River to Troutdale on Thursday evening. On Friday morning, the westbound I-84 ramps into and out of Cascade Locks also reopened. All other westbound ramps remain closed.
Officials did not give a timeline for reopening eastbound lanes.
The exit 44 westbound off-ramp and on-ramp are open but all other westbound ramps remain closed between Hood River and Troutdale.
The Eagle Creek Fire has burned more than 37,000 acres as of Thursday evening, and is still looming nearby. Parts of the interstate are in evacuation zones.
“We are keeping [eastbound lanes] closed because of the continuing nature of the fire we’re seeing,” said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.
Despite the partial opening Thursday, ODOT officials are thinking much further into the future — when winter rains start to fall and damaged vegetation could create rockslides, mudslides and debris flow back onto the heavily traveled highway.
“We have a high degree of concern for debris flow that could block the highway or block drainages. That could cause more problems, and there could be a possibility that we need to close the highway because of that,” said Ted Miller, the Region 1 maintenance and operations manager for ODOT.
In fact, rain is in the forecast as soon as Sunday.
Miller said ODOT will be assessing the Gorge’s response to the rain as it makes decisions on whether or not to fully open the interstate.
“Mother Nature tricks us sometimes,” said Miller. “If we get 1 to 3 inches, 1 might not be too bad but 3 might be too much.”
The westbound lanes were opened first because they are farther away from damaged debris than the eastbound lanes.
Crews have so far removed 3,000 trees that were at risk of falling onto the interstate and expect to remove more.
Firefighters, meanwhile, could experience some relief as a result of the rain. As of Thursday, cooler conditions have allowed crews to make progress on containment. But the blaze — which was 17 percent contained Thursday — is also expected to grow.
“We’re looking as good as we can with the fact that the fire is moving in a direction we’d rather it wasn’t moving,” said Lt. Damon Simmons with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The fire is expected to grow to the east toward Waucoma Ridge.