Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, Aug. 28, 2023 @ 7 p.m.

CHP, Caltrans Scraps Traffic Escort Plan For U.S. 199 Again; Fire Officials Hopeful For Gasquet Following 'Wind Test' Expected Wednesday

Del Norte County’s sheriff declined to give a day for when traffic can resume on U.S. 199, telling Gasquet residents on Monday that it would be unfair.

Garrett Scott pointed out that Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol need his OK to caravan cars from Crescent City to the Oregon border, and that area’s currently in an evacuation zone.

“There’s no way to do those caravans right now,” he said. “There’s trees falling in the roads, and Oregon has their own fire going. Oregon’s not ready for that either. Things could change tomorrow or the next day, and we could say all right. But to give you an answer is unfair.”

Following that special meeting with Gasquet residents, Scott's counterpart with the California Highway Patrol, Lt. Pete Roach, told a wider audience of Del Norters that plans to escort traffic through the area have been scrapped a second time.

The CHP and Caltrans had been hoping to caravan traffic up U.S. 199 on Monday but were forced to push that back to Wednesday due to an intense firefight near O'Brien in Oregon. On Monday, Roach said everything's ready to go, but bringing people through that area won't happen while O'Brien and Gasquet residents are still unable to return home.

"CHP and Caltrans, all of our guys, are ready to rock and roll," he said. "Let's hope it happens this week."

Fire personnel with California Interagency Incident Management Team 15 had high hopes that Gasquet would be out of danger soon. The small mountain town and other communities up the Smith River Canyon have to get through roughly 24 hours of dry weather with strong easterly winds that's forecasted for Wednesday, Fire Behavior Analyst Nick Elmquist said.

That "test" is expected to give way to more favorable conditions with 100 percent humidity and a 25 percent chance of a quarter inch of rain on Thursday and Friday, he said.

Frefighters will still be camped out at Ward Field, Gasquet’s airport, for an extended period of time, Elmquist said.

Operations Section Chief Tom Ederer said once Gasquet gets through the forecasted wind event on Wednesday, he feels the community will be out of danger in the short-term.

“When we look at weather, we can look at a lot of fire history and weather modeling all the way out to Oct. 2,” he said during another community meeting Monday evening. “A standard season-ending event occurs 90 percent in that timeframe. (By) Sept. 15 it’s close to a 50 percent chance of a season-ending event. If we pass through that Wednesday wind event, I feel like Gasquet will be pretty secure.”

Once he lifts that evacuation order, Scott asked residents to limit the amount of traffic on the road in their neighborhoods so firefighters can move around.

Right now, however, “there shouldn’t be anybody going home,” Scott said.

“Today you couldn’t see 5 feet in front of your truck to even drive anywhere,” he said, adding that he’s been in the community with other law enforcement officials for the last several days. “It is an evacuation order and I can’t just let people go back for a couple of hours. I’m accountable for whoever goes into that evacuation zone.”

Meanwhile, despite disaster declarations from Del Norte County, Crescent City, Del Norte County Unified School District and tribal governments, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to declare an emergency for the county, according to District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard.

Howard, who arranged Monday’s meeting at short notice for Gasquet residents, said he’s been speaking with Nancy Ward, director for the California Office of Emergency Services, on disaster declarations due to the salmon and groundfish fishery closures. But the fire is very specific and “they need information now,” Howard said.

“There’s been an initial estimate of close to $1 million impact from the closure of 199,” Howard said. “LA got declared on Aug. 18 — your Board of Supervisors was well aware — before the disaster even occurred. Before Hillary made landfall in Baja. I see the issue here and that’s why I spoke to Nancy Ward today.”

Later on Monday, Congressman Jared Huffman and California Assemblyman Jim Wood, both of whom represent Del Norte County, thanked the state and federal effort, in addition to the local effort, in addressing the emergency.

However, while they said they were “cautiously optimistic” the community would get through the emergency, neither said anything about an emergency declaration at the state level.

“Our office of emergency services with the state is working with the city and county to provide support, and that will be necessary in the days forward as we go on and recover from the impacts of this fire,” Wood said. “We’re working closely with federal partners as we always do, and Congressman Huffman and I are talking a lot, I’m sure, in support of the communities that are affected here.”

According to Hooper at the earlier meeting with Gasquet residents, county supervisors and the Crescent City Council are engaging with State Sen. Mike McGuire as well as Wood. He said the county is conducting damage assessments to prepare for its conversations with CalOES officials.

“Our roads superintendent, Richard Mello, was with the (Incident Management Team) cruising damaged forest areas and looking at our county road system so we can clearly convey to the governor the extent of the damage we’re looking at,” Hooper said. “That piece is tough to nail down.”


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