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Emergency fire escape takes shape

The Oregon Department of Transportation will build an emergency on-ramp to Interstate 5 next to the bridge on Mountain Avenue in Ashland. Photo courtesy of ODOT

An emergency on-ramp onto Interstate 5 will soon give Ashland residents a quick way to escape in the event of another devastating fire.

The gravel onramp will be built off Mountain Avenue just north of Skylark Senior Living and Mountain Meadows, allowing vehicles to enter the southbound freeway.

“This will help in an evacuation,” said Gary Leaming, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “This is an added evacuation route so people can leave town quickly and get out of harm’s way.”

Residents living nearby currently have only one option to flee in the event of oncoming flames, either by turning right or left onto Mountain Avenue.

Leaming said it’s often difficult to get unusual projects built along the Interstate, but last year’s devastating Almeda fire helped open doors to federal approval of the project.

That fire, which destroyed 2,500 residences, started about a half mile from where the emergency on-ramp will be located.

Leaming said he expects the project design will get the green light in the next few weeks, and construction should wrap up later this summer or early fall.

Because the ramp will be a gravel road, the cost will come in around $100,000, and the work will be completed by ODOT crews rather than contracted out.

The gravel road will have a locked gate that can be opened only in emergencies. Leaming said details about how the lock would be opened are still being worked out.

ODOT is coordinating with Ashland officials to cut into an existing curb and sidewalk to create the entrance to the ramp, which will be built just south and east of the Mountain Avenue bridge over the freeway.

Leaming said the emergency ramp will be a single lane and won’t allow vehicles to get up to freeway speed.

“It won’t be like a normal ramp,” he said.

ODOT wants to get the ramp built as soon as possible, with fires surrounding Jackson County in almost every direction serving as a stark reminder of the dangers from another hot, dry summer.

“As we see with the smoke and fire in our area, the danger is real,” Leaming said.

Discussions about creating the on-ramp began soon after the Sept. 8, 2020, Almeda fire, he said.

Ashland has relatively few entry and exit points, particularly in the middle part of the city around Mountain Avenue.

Neighbors near the emergency ramp, concerned about fire dangers, have already scoped out this access point in case of an emergency, though a vehicle would currently have to jump a curb and plow through a fence to get to the freeway, not to mention driving on uneven and sloping terrain.

Similarly, neighbors have also discussed getting onto the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 where Eagle Mill Road goes under the overpass.

Both of these maneuvers would be risky and would likely require a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Leaming said ODOT is in discussions with Ashland officials about having flaggers to help deal with traffic along major roadways in case of emergencies.

“In an emergency, if we have a major fire in Ashland, we don’t want that traffic,” he said.

He said ODOT sometimes reroutes traffic during the winter because of snow, but in a fire emergency trucks and other vehicles will pull off into Ashland, clogging streets and preventing locals from escaping.

Ashland officials have provided residents with maps showing the best way to evacuate in case of fire and have endorsed the emergency on-ramp.

“It’s a great thing,” said Scott Fleury, interim Ashland Public Works director.

He said the estimated time it would take to evacuate 90% of Ashland residents is about 3.5 hours.

“This relieves a little bit of that burden,” he said.

But simply giving more access to the freeway is only part of the solution to getting residents evacuated quickly.

“During the Almeda fire, when the smoke was thick, people got out of their cars and ran along the freeway,” Fleury said.

Coordination with ODOT to help the traffic get onto the freeway from the emergency on-ramp would be critical, he said.

He said there have been discussions about eventually paving the on-ramp and providing signs and lighting to help guide people during a confusing time.

Fleury said the lock for the gate would have an access code, and there have been discussions about possibly having a remote unlock feature.

The push to get the on-ramp has resulted from the subdivisions around North Mountain not having sufficient escape routes, he said.

A proposed bridge over Bear Creek at Nevada Street has languished after neighbors opposed the project for fears about increased traffic.

Fleury said he is working through an updated transportation plan, and the bridge idea will likely resurface.

“It’ll come back around and get vetted,” he said. “Still, in the long run, a fully accessible bridge to me makes the most sense.”

Fleury said there hasn’t been any conversation about another emergency on-ramp where Interstate 5 goes over Eagle Mill Road, also a short distance from the start of the Almeda fire.

Unlike the Mountain Avenue ramp, the one at Eagle Mill would likely be more difficult to build because it’s a steep grade, he said.

Going forward, Ashland is coordinating more with ODOT to help prevent trucks from blocking streets during an emergency, something that happened during the Almeda fire, Fleury said.

“We want people to get to their destinations quicker,” he said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.