For the last three days, truck driver David Cassidy has been taking the long road east and back again.
With Interstate 84 closed because of the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge, a three hour trip now takes six.
On Thursday, Cassidy was headed to the WalMart distribution center in Grandview, Washington, to deliver deli meats in the refrigerated 18-wheeler he drives for B4 Transport. Because of fire-prompted detours, Cassidy is spending more on fuel. And some receivers charge trucking companies anywhere from $100 to $700 in late fees, he said.
“They charge you for not being on time, it doesn’t matter if there’s a fire or nothing,” Cassidy said while gassing up at a Troutdale truck stop. “It’s costing everybody money … and it’s all because some kids decided to play with fireworks.”
Investigators have said a 15-year-old Vancouver boy is suspected of throwing a firecracker that sparked the now 33,000-acre wildfire. On Thursday, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced I-84 would be closed through the weekend and possibly longer.
While truckers whose routes take them from east to west have it the worst, the fire forced Union Pacific to stop its trains that run along the Oregon side of the Gorge from Monday until Wednesday morning this week. The U.S. Coast Guard has also restricted traffic along a 20-mile stretch of the Columbia River.
“Commercial boats are allowed through on a case-by-case basis,” said Lt. Commander Laura Springer, the Coast Guard’s waterways and facilities division officers.
Springer said authorities haven’t refused any commercials ships that have requested to move through the area, which includes the Bonneville Dam.
“The Columbia River is a maritime highway,” she said. “It’s how Asia gets grain and a number of products. Stuff from America’s heartland comes through the Columbia and Snake River system.”
Truckers using the region’s actual highways haven’t been so lucky. The way the detours are set up makes it difficult for truckers heading to the Portland area.
In addition to the closure of Interstate 84, trucks are restricted from using Highway 14 along the Washington side of the Gorge. That means truckers going from the Portland area to Hood River and points east, must go over Mt. Hood on Highway 26. Once they get to Hood River, they can get back onto I-84 heading east. But coming back westward, I-84 is closed to trucks at The Dalles.
“The problem with all of these is there’s no really good way to get back with the loads that typically come here to the Albany market, our back halls,” said Bob Stockburger, a site manager for Gardner Trucking’s Albany’s location.
He ships everything from boxes and paper products to soil and roofing materials from the Willamette Valley to the Tri-Cities. The way the detours and his routes match up has meant the trucks he sends east are now coming back through Tacoma.
“It turns what should be a one-day round trip into a two-and-half day adventure,” Stockburger said.
Normally, Gardner would send about 20 trucks per day along I-84. But because of the closure and longer turn around times, he’s only sending the most critical shipment.
Everything else is just stacking up.
“I have two loads of potting soil sitting in my yard; I have a load of roofing in my yard; I have two loads of particularly processed metallic products that are in my yard, and I have two more coming in today,” he said.
Stockburger said the longer I-84 stays closed, the greater and more far reaching the effects will be.
“Let’s say you get your cheese out of Boise, Idaho,” he said. “There’s no good way to get from Boise, Idaho, to Portland, except to come across Highway 20 through Burns, and go way out of your way. So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if at some point it creates some sort of shortage.”
ODOT said the interstate is damaged. Bridges also need to be inspected, and there have been many rockfalls. Between 1,500 and 2,000 trees that burned or are still burning could fall onto the roadway.
“I’ve got to say, that I-84 at this moment is a bit of a mess,” said Dave Thompson, an ODOT spokesman.
He said crews are using snow plows to remove some trees that have already fallen.
“We literally just tried to open up that section of the road for emergency traffic even, much less regular cars,” Thompson said.
For truckers like David Cassidy, the fires are more than doubling the amount of time they spend on the road. But there’s little they can do except navigate the detours and hope the interstate opens soon.
OPB’s Ericka Cruz Guevarra contributed to this report.