(Update: ODOT reports Hwy. 20 closure as well)
GATES, Ore. (KTVZ) – Bend resident Dave Ewing was heading home on state Highway 22 from the Valley on Monday night, like many holiday weekend travelers, when he started seeing and dodging fallen trees. Then he spotted a nearby wildfire, and a fallen tree knocked out power in the town of Gates.
Amid a slowed line of traffic came the unmistakable sound of one tree after another snapping and falling.
“Trees were falling left and right,” Ewing said, after he parked at a nearby rest area. “Everybody’s being turned around. There are trees falling all over the place.”
Ewing shared photos on Facebook of the nearby fire's orange glow, and trees going up on a nearby hillside – how nearby was hard to tell in the dark.
“Wow – it’s a nightmare,” he wrote, watching fire crews head up the highway.
Scenes like that were being repeated across much of the state, as a predicted windstorm came to pass amid high fire danger, sending trees toppling onto homes and highways and causing wildfires to spread fast, including one that shut Highway 97 north of Chiloquin.
By late Monday night, according to ODOT TripCheck, a nearly 70-mile stretch of Highway 22, west from the junction with Highway 20, was closed due to the fires and downed trees. State Highway 126 also was closed by a wildfire, four miles west of McKenzie Bridge.
ODOT advised early Tuesday that wildfires had closed a nearly 70-mile stretch (milepost 82 to 13) of state Highway 22 between Stayton and the Santiam Junction with Highway 20, and a 26-mile stretch (milepost 28-54) of state Highway 126 (the McKenzie Highway) between Vida and state Highway 242.
"Evacuations are underway in both areas," they advised. "Watch for fire crews."
Another fast-growing wildfire shut Highway 97 near Chiloquin Monday night -- and a 45-mile stretch of Highway 20 was closed late Tuesday morning, between mileposts 26 and 71.
That leaves only state Highway 58 (Willamette Pass) and U.S. Highway 26 over Mount Hood as routes between Central Oregon and the Willamette Valley, along with Highways 97/197 to Interstate 84 in the Columbia Gorge.
Forecasters and fire officials had warned for days the “wind event” was going to cause destruction – and it did, with downed trees stranding many motorists until the roads could be cleared, along with the spreading wildfires.
Ewing said early Tuesday that after the Highway 22 closure amid Level 3 evacuations in the area -- including Idanha, Gates and Detroit -- drivers were turned back to Salem and could head over Santiam Pass on U.S. Highway 20.
But it was bumper-to-bumper, slow going traffic, through flames... a frightening trip. And then up to Portland and home over Mount Hood and Highway 26, arriving home after a long night around 8 a.m., he said.