By Andrew Goetz and Steve Breen
Public information officers
As supervisor of the Idlewild Maintenance Station on State Route 199 near the California-Oregon border, Johnnie James and his crew have responded to more than their share of emergency situations and harrowing circumstances.
But perhaps nothing quite as terrifying as the Slater Fire that forced the emergency evacuation of the Idlewild station in the early morning hours of Sept. 9. The blaze has continued to burn in the Klamath National Forest area, and has consumed about 156,000 acres. It was 80 percent contained as of Oct. 15.
James recounted that the fire originated about 22 miles away from Idlewild, but in only a few hours was threatening the facility because of high winds.
“The fire started Tuesday morning, and by noon it was black as midnight because of the smoke,” said James, who has been Idlewild’s supervisor since 2017, and worked at Caltrans since 2007. “It was amazing how fast the fire got here with the way the wind was blowing.”
James said he received a call from the CHP about 5 a.m. about the approaching flames. He immediately began evacuation procedures for a nearby rest area, then the station itself.
“The first six to eight hours was nerve-wracking,” he recalled. “I got the call about the fire at 5 a.m., and we were already evacuating the station by 7 a.m. Had the winds kept up another four to six hours, the way they were blowing, I guess the facility would not be here right now.”
The reaction of the maintenance staff at Idlewild to the fast-developing emergency “was phenomenal,” James said.
“To get here at 5:30 in the morning and to get our equipment out of the yard before 9 a.m. to preserve what we could is a testament to them and their work ethic,” he said.
Making a tension-filled situation more difficult was the fact that several employees and their families who lived in Oregon were forced to leave their homes because of the blaze.
“My concern was with them and their families; they are like family to us,” James said. “To be displaced from their homes for seven to eight days was very trying. Ultimately, we all came together to take care of the traveling public and our highway.”
During the crisis, the Idlewild staff continued to work with the CHP, local Sheriff’s Office and fire officials to divert travelers from the danger. A stretch of SR 199 near the town of Gasquet was closed for 10 days, with signage and social media used to keep traffic out of the area. Still, “it was amazing the number of people who tried to get through the closure,” James said.
He also credited his counterparts at the Oregon Department of Transportation for their close coordination in managing access to the highway during the critical days.
"To be displaced from their homes for seven to eight days was very trying. Ultimately, we all came together to take care of the traveling public and our highway."
SR 199, meanwhile, sustained major damage in the places where the Slater Fire raged through. James said that almost 1,000 trees that pose a threat to the roadway must be removed, and compromised culverts rebuilt. Miles of guardrail also have been replaced.
On a positive note, the rest area, as well as the station itself, were not damaged.
James said the 10-day closure of SR 199 was the longest experienced in his 14 years on the job with Caltrans.
“It was a long closure for everyone, and my guys were willing to show up and do their job every day,” James said.
And more fire-related work could lie ahead with winter coming. The massive blaze is expected to leave an exposed burn scar that could act as baked, impermeable surface not allowing rains to soak in – instead running off onto roadways, causing damage.
The whole experience, however fraught, serves as a learning lesson for everyone, he said.
“Now I know what I need to have in an emergency, what I need to get out of here. It helps us prepare for any kind of natural disaster – earthquake, wildfire, of anything like that,” James said. “This experience will help us in the future.”