The damage that Friday’s flash flooding inflicted on roads, campgrounds and the land itself along the South Fork of the Burnt River near Unity probably will persist for years.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Mark Penninger, acting public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, in describing the way multiple torrents of water, carrying hundreds of tons of mud and rock and thousands of trees, many of them burned during the 2016 Rail fire, transformed the landscape in the southwest corner of Baker County in just a few hours.
No one was hurt during the flooding.
Sections of several roads, including the main route along the South Fork, Forest Road 6005, are buried under jackstrawed piles of trees 15 to 20 feet deep, Penninger said.
Floodwaters and debris flows plugged multiple metal culverts, some of them 5 feet in diameter, causing mud, rocks and trees to clog the South Fork’s channel for hundreds of yards upstream from the culvert.
Two of the three official Forest Service campgrounds in the area, Stevens Creek and Elk Creek, “are not recognizable as campgrounds,” after the South Fork topped its banks and propelled a messy flotsam through campgrounds, which combined have 19 campsites, Penninger said.
“Fire rings and picnic tables were washed away,” he said.
A section of the South Fork campground was undamaged, but about 30 percent to 40 percent of that site was also swept by floodwaters.
The flood also affected the unofficial Mammoth Springs campsite, which is shown on some Forest Service maps.
The three official campgrounds are closed, as is the South Fork road and several other roads in the area.
The Wallowa-Whitman has also prohibited the public from entering a larger area that includes much of the South Fork drainage.
Penninger said the Forest Service’s initial estimate is that flooding affected an area covering from 16,000 acres to 19,200 acres.
And although officials probably will need at least a couple more weeks of assessing the damage to make even preliminary estimates for how long repairs might take, Penninger said he doesn’t expect the main South Fork road will be accessible to the public before winter.
“It’s pretty devastating,” he said. “It’s not going to be a quick fix. None of the roads are accessible by any vehicle at this point.”
See more in the Sept. 13, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.