Efforts on Sunday to reduce avalanche danger above Hiland Road in Eagle River’s South Fork Valley were successful, officials said, allowing crews to begin clearing avalanche debris that buried the road Thursday night and nearly reached several dwellings, cutting off more than 100 homes on the other side of the slide.
It could take a couple weeks to remove the snow, the city said.
After residents were ordered evacuated from the area Sunday, a helicopter crew dropped a series of explosive charges on snowpack high above the road in late afternoon. A Daily News photographer heard 10 explosions on the mountainside.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s office issued a statement saying, “Mitigation efforts for the Hiland Road avalanche are complete and were successful. Safety teams have assessed potential risks for reentry.
“Significant risks remain in place until snow clearing operations are complete. The public will be allowed back in the area affected by the evacuation order effective immediately. We do caution residents from returning to their homes until snow is removed.”
Snow removal was expected to begin Monday “contingent on daily safety assessments. If conditions remain safe, we anticipate snow removal will take two weeks.”
When pressed on details, spokesman Corey Allen Young said, “The incident commander has been given a degree of confidence from the avalanche experts that the area is safe to begin snow removal.”
Roughly half of the mountain’s snowpack came down in Thursday night’s avalanche, about 7 miles up Hiland Road, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said Sunday. The remaining snow was in danger of coming down on its own, officials said, and they scrambled to get residents between Mile 7.0 and 7.9 of Hiland Road out of the area before triggering the remaining snow with explosives dropped from a helicopter.
Snowmachines were used to ferry residents around the avalanche to safety.
The avalanche occurred around 11:30 p.m. Thursday in the 2400 block of Hiland Road, near South River Lane, city officials said. The area is about a half-mile north of the popular South Fork Valley Trailhead.
Officials pushed to start the avalanche mitigation Sunday ahead of a storm that was expected to bring snow and increased winds at higher elevations starting in the evening.
Debris from the avalanche is 300 to 450 feet wide and 60 to 80 feet deep, according to the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management. The mayor issued an emergency disaster declaration on Saturday.
“The size of this avalanche is massive,” Demboski said. “It has been described by avalanche experts as a once-in-100-year event.”
Around 100 households remain cut off from main road access and many of these homes still do not have power.
Brendan Castello, who was in bed when the avalanche happened, said he woke up when the power went out but didn’t pay much attention to it. In the morning when the power didn’t come back, he learned about the avalanche and went down to see it.
“I drove down and kind of crested the hill and came around and saw that it was, you know, 40-plus feet, right across the road and thought, ‘Oh, no, we are definitely not going to school today,’ ” he said. “I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s gonna be several days.’ ”
Castello used his generator to heat the house and rode his snowmachine to Eagle River to make sure he and his family had supplies.
An emergency evacuation route from West River Drive remains in use with snowmachine support for transport, Misty Rose Nesvick, public information officer at the Municipality of Anchorage Emergency Operations Center, said in an email.
The Red Cross opened a shelter for evacuated people and pets at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center but moved it to on-call status Sunday evening, with volunteers available to reopen it and provide help to residents.