Planning pays off for eclipse rush

Eclipse tourists camp in a field at the industrial park near the airport on Sunday in John Day. Officials expect around 1,300 campers to be on hand for the eclipse Monday.

After months of bracing for massive crowds, gnarled traffic and barren supermarket shelves, it turns out rural Eastern Oregon was more than prepared to handle the influx of visitors who came for Monday’s total solar eclipse.

Locals were reportedly busy, but not overwhelmed by the number of eclipse watchers who flocked from around the world to tiny towns like John Day, Fossil and Spray to witness the rare cosmic event within the path of totality.

Nick Green, John Day city manager, estimated they had more than 10,000 people stay in town, including 3,000 who camped at the John Day Industrial Park and the former Oregon Pine mill site. Both tent and RV campsites were booked solid, in addition to motels and landowners renting additional space for guests.

“There were a lot of logistics, but it was a great event,” Green said. “Everyone had a great time.”

While traffic was mostly steady throughout the weekend, John Day did experience a hefty backup along Highway 26 immediately following the eclipse on Monday. Green said the line of cars stretched for eight miles east toward Prairie City, and members of the Oregon National Guard were brought in to direct the flow of traffic downtown.

“We’ve never seen anything like that in Grant County,” he said.

Despite the relatively high volume of drivers on otherwise sparsely populated roads, Tom Strandberg with the Oregon Department of Transportation said they did not have any major wrecks or closures in the area.

Strandberg, who serves as the spokesman for ODOT in Eastern Oregon, said they are still crunching the numbers to determine just how many vehicles did arrive and stay in Grant County. He said eclipse travelers largely heeded the agency’s advice to come early, though not as many stayed late, which led to periods of congestion Monday.

Still, it could have been much worse.

“I think we were pretty pleased,” Strandberg said. “We got our message out there.”

The U.S. Forest Service was also pretty pleased with how campers behaved as they gathered to watch the eclipse in the woods. Mike Stearly, spokesman for the Malheur National Forest, said they filled every campground in and around the path of totality, including as many as 300 people in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.

The biggest concern heading into the weekend was the risk of wildfires amid extreme fire danger. All three Blue Mountains national forests — the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur — are currently in Phase C public use restrictions, which includes a complete ban on campfires.

Stearly said the forest did a large fire prevention campaign in advance of the eclipse rush, and by the end they had reported no new human-caused fires.

It was a similar situation on the neighboring Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, where spokesman Chris Bentley said they set up five public information stations to notify out-of-town campers about the burn ban and other regulations.

Like the Malheur forest, Bentley said the Wallowa-Whitman managed to navigate the eclipse without any major emergencies.

“We like to plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised,” he said.

Jena Knowles, public relations director for the Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day, said they originally planned for heavy traffic at the hospital, even bringing in outside volunteers to help keep things organized. Instead, she said the weekend was much calmer than they anticipated.

“It was crazy, just how quiet it was,” Knowles said. “We were prepared for a lot different scenario.”

In Wheeler County, Sheriff Chris Humphreys compared the eclipse to what they would normally see during any given Memorial Day Weekend. Monday’s mass exodus of people following the eclipse kept them busy, Humphreys said, but nothing they weren’t prepared to handle.

“We just put the right amount of planning on this,” he said. “This is exactly what we expected.”

Humphreys said he was even able to share some of his officers with neighboring Crook County, where they were dealing with much larger crowds at the Symbiosis Gathering on Big Summit Prairie. With a population of just 1,344, Wheeler County may very well have been overwhelmed if not for a multi-area coordination with Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties, Humphreys added.

In Fossil — population 473 — city recorder Jeanne Burch said the county fairgrounds did sell out all 115 available campsites, though crowds never grew out of hand. Many of the visitors remained in town as of Tuesday, she said, lining up to check out the Fossil Museum and patronizing local businesses.

“They really do seem like they are having a good time,” Burch said.

Debbie Starkey, a city councilwoman for the even smaller community of Spray, said they began planning for the eclipse as early as January, with emergency management, law enforcement and economic development all at the table. Though crowds weren’t as high as they originally expected, she said no one came away disappointed.

“It was almost folksy, the way things unfolded,” Starkey said. “There wasn’t the Madras hype that everybody heard about.”

Starkey said she felt the town was as prepared as it could be — perhaps even a little over-prepared.

“I don’t regret it at all,” she said. “We had no issues. There were no problems.”

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