BAKER COUNTY — Three members of the Baker County Sheriff’s Office’s search and rescue team brought to safety a Beaverton couple and their son early Monday, April 12, after their car became stuck in the snow Sunday afternoon on an unplowed Forest Service road in eastern Baker County.
No one was hurt in the incident, said Ashley McClay, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
The Baker County 911 Dispatch Office received a call about 2:26 a.m. Monday from Jason Brunson, 52, McClay said.
Brunson told a dispatcher that his 2016 Ford Fusion sedan was stuck in snow along the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, also known as Forest Road 39, about 8.9 miles north of Highway 86. Road 39 branches off Highway 86 about 9 miles northeast of Halfway.
Brunson was accompanied by his wife, Jennifer, 49, and their 7-year-old son, George, McClay said.
The three search and rescue team members traveled to the site in two side-by-side all-terrain vehicles, equipped with tires rather than tracks. They arrived at 5:38 a.m. and brought the Beaverton family back to the highway.
McClay said Sgt. Eric Colton helped the Brunsons arrange to have their car towed. It apparently sustained damage when they were trying to free it from the snow, McClay said.
McClay said the Brunson family was trying to reach the Hells Canyon Overlook. The turnoff to that site, which is along a side road, is about 10 miles farther along Road 39 from where the car became stuck.
Brunson said the car got mired in snow between 4 and 5 p.m. Sunday. The family tried through the evening to extricate the car, he said, without success. Around 2 a.m. Monday he walked about a quarter mile to a point where he had cell service to call 911.
McClay said the car had a nearly full tank of gas, and the family apparently was able to run the engine to operate the heater and warm the interior.
There are no weather stations within 15 miles or so of the site, but a station at Salt Creek Summit, about 16 miles northeast, recorded a low temperature of 20 degrees Monday. The Baker City Airport tied a record low of 16 degrees Monday morning.
In early March the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, prompted by multiple search and rescue calls this past winter along Road 39 in both Baker and Wallowa counties, issued a press release reminding drivers that the road is a snowmobile route during winter. The Forest Service placed barriers along the road to discourage passenger vehicles. According to the press release, the Forest Service planned to move the barriers farther up the road this spring as the snow receded.
Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash said Forest Service officials notified him recently that the barriers would be removed. A sign remains warning the road is not maintained during winter, but Ash said he believes the sign is too small to be effective.
He said the Brunsons told search and rescue members they didn’t see the warning sign.
Road 39, which continues north into Wallowa County, usually doesn’t fully open to vehicles until May or early June.
One problem with Road 39 and several other forest roads that are popular with snowmobilers, Ash said, is that the snow machines compact the snow into a firm but thin surface that can hold the weight of a car.
Until it doesn’t.
“You can do fine on that compact snow until you break through,” Ash said. “Then you’re stuck.”
He said people who aren’t familiar with snowmobile routes don’t recognize that a road hasn’t been maintained for wheeled vehicles.
Ash said that although he’s happy the Brunsons are safe, he’s concerned that future episodes will not turn out as well.
He believes bigger signs or some other more blatant notice to travelers who aren’t familiar with the area is necessary.
“We have to do something,” Ash said.
The sheriff is familiar with rescues on the snow-covered Road 39.
On Thanksgiving Day 2020 Ash helped an 18-year-old Boise man whose car became stuck in snow on the road more than 12 miles beyond where the Brunsons’ car was mired.
Exactly 20 years earlier, on the same holiday in 2000, Ash rescued three travelers from Germany who were stranded in the same area.