50-mile stretch of highway out of Valdez closed by avalanches

dkelly@adn.comJanuary 25, 2014 

A 50-mile stretch of the Richardson Highway outside Valdez will remain closed until at least Monday as crews charged with clearing avalanche debris work to bring down unstable snow in Thompson Pass.

Multiple avalanches early Friday morning blocked the highway, effectively cutting off Valdez by road. The slides measured several hundred feet long and between 30 and 40 feet deep, said Jeremy Woodrow, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.

Crews spent Saturday dropping aerial explosives on chutes in hopes of averting additional slides. A crew was also delivered by helicopter to a stationary avalanche gun to blast more of the slide area, Woodrow said.

A new avalanche slid down the north side of Keystone Canyon on Saturday, possibly caused by blasting activities, Woodrow said. It measured between 1,000 and 1,500 feet long and between 60 and 70 feet deep.

By the end of the day, it was determined that the slide area was still too unstable for crews to enter the canyon and begin removing snow and debris. Blasting efforts will continue from dawn to dusk on Sunday, and the roadway will remain closed until Monday or Tuesday, depending on the weather, Woodrow said.

"It's one of the larger avalanche activities ever seen in this area," Woodrow said.

DOT closed the Richard Highway between mileposts 12 and 64, a stretch that includes Keystone Canyon and the Alpine Woods subdivision.

No injuries or damage to homes have been reported but the highway may be in rough shape when the snow clearing finally begins, said Holly Wolgamott, deputy city clerk in Valdez.

"We will have to wait and see once (DOT) starts clearing the road what happens to the road itself," Wolgamott said.

About three inches of rain fell in the area Friday, a record for that day in January, according to Mike Ottenweller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

Water flowing from the Lowe River, which was dammed by slides at Mile 16, began receding overnight Friday. A flash flood warning and evacuation order issued earlier in the day was lifted for residents of Keystone Canyon on Saturday, as well as a voluntary evacuation order for those living in Alpine Woods and the 10 Mile area.

Katie Dugan and her husband have lived in a small subdivision at Mile 19 of Thompson Pass for the past three years. Their cabin lost electricity, Internet and cell service for about 24 hours, starting around 2 p.m. on Friday.

She said an avalanche closes the road once a winter but only for a few hours or a day.

"From what I hear, this is huge," said Dugan, a communications manager for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

She had to turn back on her commute to work Friday morning, and has been cut off from Valdez ever since. But thanks to Costco trips, her cabin has plenty of food and water, she said. She, her husband and her neighbors played music, drank wine and lit candles.

"It was definitely rustic last night," she said with a laugh.

Certain foods were running low at the Safeway in Valdez after the road closure caused the supermarket to miss a delivery. Safeway was planning to put its truck on a ferry instead, and goods were expected to be replenished Sunday, Wolgamott said.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker, his wife, and lieutenant governor candidate Craig Fleener expected to drive to Valdez for a campaign event Friday night. But after hearing of the avalanche in Keystone Canyon, they ended up on a plane instead.

Walker said in an email that they didn't see the avalanche itself from the air but noticed major portions of Mile High Mountain where snow had slid, leaving large brown dirt patches.

"We were told that on Thursday night in Valdez, residents were woken up when these in-town slides broke loose," Walker wrote. "They likened the sound to that of a jet engine."

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

 

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