News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Residents voice concern over safety

Marion County officials held two public information sessions on wildfire recovery and access in the North Fork area, with the upshot that a third consecutive summer of limited recreational opportunities is all but certain.

The three-person Board of Commissioners and county law enforcement, public works, community services, economic development and parks officials were on hand for an April 5 session in Elkhorn and an April 12 meeting in Mehama. Joining the county group were representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management and area fire agencies.

About 50 residents packed the fire station in Elkhorn, with about 20 community members participating at the Community Center in Mehama.

The big issue for the Elkhorn residents was safety. Despite enhanced patrols by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office funded by a $250,000 federal grant that expires in June, area residents still feel vulnerable. One resident said he had been robbed three times and spent $1,500 in security equipment. Another resident said he frequently has to call deputies to shoo campers off of his property.

North Fork Road, which runs through the North Fork/Elkhorn area from Highway 22, remains closed except to local traffic. Ditto for Gates Hill and Pioneer roads. The arteries have essentially been closed since the 2020 Labor Day fires as crews from various agencies harvested and removed dead and hazardous trees and residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed embarked upon the arduous process of rebuilding.

A look up North Fork Road just outside of Mehama. Access to the fire-damaged region will continue to be limited until after Labor Day, Marion County officials said.James Day
A look up North Fork Road just outside of Mehama. Access to the fire-damaged region will continue to be limited until after Labor Day, Marion County officials said.
James Day

Marion County plans to open the roads “sometime after Labor Day,” although no date has been established and no fanfare should be expected.

“We’re not going to have a ribbon-cutting,”said Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron. “We’re not going to open on a hot August night. And we will do what we need to do to protect the people up here.”

North Fork-area residents fear a perfect storm of fire tourists getting their first chance to look at the damage as well as recreation enthusiasts hoping for Little North Santiam River access that might not exist yet.

Parks and recreation spots in the North Fork region operated by the county, the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area all are currently closed. 

Marion County hopes to open Bear Creek and Salmon Falls to day use, but their restoration and recovery plans for those two facilities and North Fork Park will be just getting cranking by this summer.

“If you are going to open the road but the parks are closed, what’s the point?” asked one attendee at Elkhorn.

Another added that “people with nowhere to go can get into trouble.”

Trouble was a consistent thread before the fires, when up to 2,000 vehicles would head into the North Fork area on warm, summer weekends. Residents still remember the 2015 incident in which a young man died at parked-to-the-gills Salmon Falls and emergency response crews faced gridlock just getting to the scene.

Recreation challenges aside there were numerous positives that came out of the two sessions. County officials said that approximately 75 percent of residents who lost homes have either rebuilt or are in the process of rebuilding. 

Commissioner Danielle Bethell said Marion is way ahead of Lane County at this point, with just 10 percent of homeowners there advancing that far.

Residents at both sessions expressed gratitude for the assistance they received, with one resident at the Mehama meeting describing the county’s refunding of property tax payments to those who lost homes as “manna from heaven.”

Marion County apparently is an outlier in terms of offering such aid, which bewilders Commissioner Colm Willis. 

“I can’t believe other counties didn’t do it,” Willis said. 

Other assistance cited included waiving of building permit fees for rebuilt houses that maintained their original footprints, grants for septic system rebuilds and the coup de grace, $12 million in just-released funds from Oregon Housing and Community Services which Bethell said will help the county all but zero out the rebuilding work for those homeowners whose cases are being managed by local recovery teams. 

“Good things will come out of this and it’s a good thing that we are able to get together like this,” Cameron told the Mehama audience. “Thanks for being in the Canyon and for coming back to the Canyon and keeping it strong.”

In other updates from the two sessions:

• Most of the Santiam State Forest recreation sites have reopened or will be open by summer, but the jewel of the forest, Shellburg Falls, remains closed until probably the fall because of hazard-tree removal. Once Shellburg reopens it will be for day-use only, said Randy Peterson, recreation manager for the ODF. 

• The gravel stretch of North Fork Road between Highway 22 and Elkhorn will remain largely gravel until perhaps 2026. County Engineer Lani Radtke said the biggest challenge is that stretch of road is subject to landslides that must be managed. 

• North Fork Park, the largest Marion County facility in the area – and the closest to Highway 22 – will open later than Bear Creek and Salmon Falls because of its unique co-ownership. Marion County operates the facility, but the BLM owns half the land. Marion has finished its hazard tree work, but the BLM will not start its tree removals until perhaps July, said Mike Matthews, assistant district manager for the agency.

• Despite all of the tree work being done by the ODF, the USFS, the BLM and private landowners, residents in the North Fork area say agencies are not removing the logs and piles as quickly as they would like. 

“It’s a tinder box all the way up the road here,” said one resident. “All it takes is one cigarette. We’re all at risk and it’s scary.”

• In a bit of Catch-22 that led to howls of derision at the Elkhorn meeting, Forest Service officials noted that the general forest was open and that the public was welcome, except for the fact that the roads into the forest remain closed. In fairness to the agency, its tree removals and road plan were delayed by court challenges. 

Michelle King, the new ranger at the USFS’s Detroit station, told the Mehama audience that she hopes to clear trees on 150 miles of roads this summer and fall.

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