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DOT crews working to clear series of avalanches on Richardson Highway

Sean Doogan
Massive avalanches Thursday and Friday closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez. As of Saturday, Jan. 25, the road is expected to remain closed for at least 48 to 72 hours. Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team

Parts of the Richardson Highway near Valdez remain closed Saturday after several massive avalanches covered the roadway on Thursday and Friday.

The slides crossed the highway at mile 39 and in Keystone Canyon, between miles 14 and 18. But snow and debris aren't the only thing holding motorists and work crews back. The avalanches have dammed up part of the Lowe River, sending several feet of water onto the roadway as well. Between snow, ice, rocks and water, the avalanches have buried hundreds of feet of highway. Department of Transportation crews estimate that the Richardson Highway is covered in up to 40 feet of snow and debris.  

"The are among the biggest avalanches ever seen in the area," DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said Saturday.

The Richardson Highway has been closed between miles 12 and 64 while crews determine how to clear them away.

But DOT said its crews will not be able to begin work clearing the worst parts of the avalanche until after the snow and ice dams they created break free and release the water they are holding.

"It's too dangerous," Woodrow said. "We are going to let Mother Nature take its course."

The Richardson is a mostly-two-lane rural highway that runs 368 miles between Fairbanks in Alaska's Interior and Valdez, which sits on the northern shore of Prince William Sound. The area where the slides occurred is known for avalanche danger, and the recent spate of warm wet weather means more could be possible. Woodrow said DOT crews were going to have to be very cautious while trying to work in the area because of the fear of more avalanches.

One motorist who was in the area when the slides came down is very lucky to be alive. Woodrow said the man, who has not been identified, was driving on the roadway and became trapped between two slides. DOT crews helped the uninjured driver to safety. His car remains stuck in the roadway.

Valdez, which has the state's northernmost ice-free deep-water port, is the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline, which snakes its way 800 miles through Alaska, beginning in Prudhoe Bay, on the state's northern coast. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. officials said the slides have not damaged the pipeline or halted operations. And even though the only road into town is closed, Valdez residents are taking the avalanches in stride.

"It's not a big deal," Rick Erickson said.

Erickson works at a local sporting goods store, Prospector Outfitters. Erikson said people in Valdez are used to being self-sufficient.

"We've had people come in who want to get out of town and can't, but nobody's freaking out," Erickson said..

DOT said it could take several days to clear the highway of the avalanche debris and water.

For the latest highway information, visit DOT's Alaska 511 traveler information website.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.