In the community, Local government

Local residents organize safety push for Vines Hill area on highway west of Vale

VALE – Seven people have died near Vines Hill west of Vale in less than 12 months, including a local 17-year-old Harper youth who was killed in a two-vehicle crash recently.

Now, local residents Kathy Pozzi and Mickey Thomson want to prevent any more deaths on that stretch U.S. Highway 20 and are organizing a grass-roots effort to upgrade safety in the area. Thomson created a Facebook page dedicated to the effort and last week Pozzi delivered a letter to the Malheur County Traffic Safety Committee with suggestions on how to make the roadway safer.

Pozzi and Thomson said they decided to get involved after Vale High School junior Wyatt Cannon died in a traffic collision April 23. The crash also seriously injured his 13-year-old sister Sara.

Yet Cannon was just the most recent causality on a stretch of road about 14 miles west of Vale that has become locally notorious as a dangerous place.

In July 2023, five people died on Vines Hill in a fiery crash. Lance Lighfoot, 62, of Meridian, Idaho, along with Cecilia Loma, 27, and Erik Ortiz, 26, of Carson, California died in the crash. A 15-year-old and an 8-month-old infant also perished.

In August 2023, Christian Cheryl Shane-Contarino, 75 of Yreka, California, died in a head-on crash with a semi-truck near Grove School Lane, a short distance from Vines Hill. Pozzi said seven deaths within 10 months is troubling.

The state Transportation Department) “is creating a perfect storm by not having good signage and good passing lanes, forcing people to be negligent,” said Pozzi.

For Pozzi the stretch of road is especially concerning because relatives in Juntura travel to Vale frequently.

 “We’ve just had too many lives lost. It just needs to stop,” said Pozzi.

Thomson said she knows the Cannon family and the crash that killed Wyatt Cannon hit the whole Harper community hard.

“He was a great kid from a great family,” said Thomson.

Thomson began a Facebook page, called Highway 20 Vines Hill/Canyon, shortly after Cannon’s death.

“We are going to get a petition going for ODOT to do something,” said Thomson.

Thomson said she believes there needs to be more police patrols along the Vines Hill stretch.

“I’m on board with signs but where we need to start is with (police) patrols. I honestly think 24-hour patrols. Just knowing patrol is there will make people slow down and pay attention,” said Thomson.

In her letter to the Malheur County Traffic Safety Committee, Pozzi wrote, “We understand that we cannot stop negligent drivers from making stupide decisions in dangerous areas.”

“We also must understand, that after a driver follows a semi or pickup pulling a horse trailer for 80 miles with no turnouts, that frustration and bad decision-making increases,” she wrote.

Pozzi suggested turnouts and signs “that perhaps say ‘passing lane 2 miles ahead,’ that this may slow down a driver to wait to pass before they go into the opposing lane into on-coming traffic.”

She also suggested a concrete barrier between the two lanes of traffic near and on Vines Hill and “rough treads” between lanes.

“We know there is no overnight solutions. Flashing lights, signs would be a great start. The conclusion is if ODOT continues to ignore the deaths, the increased accidents and how dangerous this section of Hwy 20 is, that they will be the negligent ones,” wrote Pozzi.

Malheur County Sheriff Travis Johnson said he supports the effort by Pozzi and Thomson.

He said the solution is “multi-faceted.”

Johnson said his office and the Oregon State Police have already beefed up patrols in the area.

“It is a difficult highway to patrol. It is really hard to be in a position where you can find people passing unsafely. Then, if you do, there isn’t a good place to turn around and catch up with them,” he said.

He said, though, the sheriff’s office is dedicated to making the highway safer.

“We will be working on some options to make our presence known so people know when to slow down,” he said.

The state Transportation Department is reviewing crash data from the Vines Hill area, said Vicki Moles, community affairs specialist for the agency.

However, she said, the agency already is working on a project between Vale and Burns to include new pull-outs and expanding existing ones.

“We will also be installing turn lanes at Harper Junction. These improvements will create safe passing opportunities and alleviate congestion caused by slower traffic,” said Moles.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

A family with a dream, a man heading for home and then a deadly collision

Local youth dies in Vines Hill crash

Vale High School mourns loss of junior killed in collision

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.