July 14, 2002 11:00 pm

By Chris Collins

For The Observer

BAKER CITY — Burning asphalt oil from a tanker truck that overturned near Weatherby about midnight Sunday closed the freeway in both directions.

Interstate 84 remained closed this morning between Baker City and Ontario, according to Tom Strandberg, Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman in La Grande. The closure was expected to last at least until noon.

The Weatherby Rest Area was evacuated after the crash, Strandberg said.

ODOT was attempting to keep a half-mile buffer zone around the fire today because of poisonous gas being emitted by the fire. As the wind changed this morning, eastbound vehicles within the half-mile area were being released one at a time, Strandberg said.

At least 60 westbound trucks were stalled near the area of the fire overnight, he added. The number stalled in the eastbound lanes was not available.

The Union Pacific mainline also was closed because of the burning hazardous material, according to Sgt. Dave Macmaniman of the Baker City office of Oregon State Police.

Macmaniman said the driver and co-driver of the semi-truck and tank trailer sustained minor injuries in the accident. Their names were not available in time for this story. Macmaniman said the cause of the accident is under investigation.

Traffic was being rerouted from Baker City over Highway 7 to Dooley Mountain and through to Highway 26 to the Vale and Ontario areas, Strandberg said.

The Huntington Fire Department was the first to respond to the scene. The Ontario Fire Department was called to assist at 2:15 a.m., according to Fire Chief Randy Simpson.

After researching how best to suppress an asphalt oil fire, Simpson said he decided to isolate the fire and let it burn.

"There was no way to put the fire out," he said.

Ontario firefighters left the scene at about 4 a.m., he said.

Simpson said the truck and tanker tipped on the driver's side about 10 feet from the center divider. The asphalt oil spilled between the tank and the divider, but otherwise was contained inside the tanker. The fire burned at the spill site and inside the tank, creating a large amount of smoke, he said.