Anchorage

Neighbors come together after avalanche closes upper Hiland Road for at least two more weeks

Hiland Road avalanche snow removal

Update, 7 a.m. Wednesday: Power was restored to all but one of the Hiland Road homes in the avalanche area by 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to a Matanuska Electric Association update. Crews were able to restore power to 24 of the 25 remaining members affected by the avalanche, the co-op said Wednesday morning.

Crews will work Wednesday to restore power to the remaining member.

“These temporary power solutions will keep the power on for these homes until we can repair and replace permanent power infrastructure after the snow is cleared and we can work in the area,” the update said.

Original story:

Buck Evans was sound asleep when an avalanche broke loose from the mountainsides above Hiland Road late Thursday. The slide buried the road in Eagle River’s South Fork Valley in 60 to 80 feet of snow and stopped in his driveway, narrowly missing his home.

“We didn’t feel it or hear it or anything,” he said, recalling the moment Monday afternoon. “Then my wife, she got up and looked around and says ‘Buck, we got an avalanche,’ So I got up, looked around – what are we gonna do about this? I went back to bed.”

Evans’ three-story home is one of the closest to where the massive slide came to rest and is one of 45 houses still without power four days later. Officials estimate it will take at least two more weeks to clear the roadway, a process that began Monday.

More than 100 homes are uphill from the avalanche and residents are making their way in and out of the neighborhood by snowmachine on a newly created evacuation route.

“We’ve just been surviving,” Evans said. “No power, no water and no cell phones, no communication.”

Evans said the avalanche is unlike anything he’s seen since he moved there decades ago.

“In 41 years that I’ve lived in this exact spot, it’s never broke loose,” he said.

Evans said he’s lucky. The snow destroyed his greenhouse and covered the vehicles parked in his driveway but stopped just short of the house. He’s able to access the road.

He and his family have been heating the home with a backup generator to keep their many pets comfortable. They have two old dogs — Bree the German shepherd and Romey the Akita, two parrots, a cockatiel, “a bunch of parakeets and a bunch of fish,” he said.

Hiland Road avalanche snow removal

Evans and other Hiland Road residents say community spirit has made the near-disastrous experience easier to handle.

“The community’s been taking care of us,” he said.

Greg Closter, who lives nearby, said the avalanche has made a friendly neighborhood even more tight-knit.

People went from house to house to deliver updates about the situation during the first day while the power was out and cell service was spotty. Neighbors grilled food together at the evacuation trailhead where everyone gathered for a meal and compared stories. And when Closter’s wife injured her wrist, their neighbors from up the street — a firefighter and a physician’s assistant — stopped by for an informal exam and to fix a splint for her.

“It’s very comforting to know that people are helping out,” he said.

Hiland Road avalanche mitigation

On Sunday, officials launched explosives at the mountainside in order to release any additional avalanches and mitigate risk. People living in a section of homes nearby had been asked to evacuate on Friday but were told it was safe to return home Sunday. Most of the residents who evacuated have since returned home, said Assistant Fire Chief Alex Boyd on Monday.

“They were pretty firm on they were going to be coming home,” he said.

Snow removal began Monday morning, with “a steady stream of dump trucks driving uphill and then coming loaded downhill,” said Boyd.

At the site, a bulldozer pushed the snow to front-end loaders, which filled the dump trucks.

“We’re definitely working seven days a week, dark to dark until it’s done,” said Matthew McKenna, who is an owner at McKenna Brothers Paving, which is contracted through the municipality to remove the snow.

Hiland Road avalanche snow removal

Every crew member has been outfitted with an avalanche beacon and Boyd said an avalanche specialist is routinely assessing for changing conditions or increased danger.

As long as conditions remain safe, McKenna said he hopes to have the road reopened in two weeks.

Hiland Road resident Brad Meiklejohn is lending his expertise to the cleanup effort. Meiklejohn, who said he spent 12 years working as an avalanche forecaster in Utah and much of his professional career teaching avalanche safety, said the slide was a terrifying sight when he opened his drapes Friday.

“We got lucky on this thing, really. It could’ve been far, far worse,” he said. “Having this thing show up on your doorstep, 30 feet of snow out your back door, is quite a wakeup call.”

As avalanche technician, Meiklejohn, 62, will monitor conditions for safety as the snow as hauled away. On Monday, he skied in the vicinity to make assessments.

“We don’t anticipate any slides coming down into the work zone, but we’re going to have to keep a close eye on the snow and the weather conditions.”

Hiland Road avalanche snow removal

For now, residents will continue to shuttle in and out of the area through the snowmachine trail to pick up supplies and go to school or work. Closter said he’s coordinating with his coworkers to see if someone will meet him on the other side to give him a ride to work. It’s inconvenient, but Closter is choosing to look on the bright side.

“We just have to be patient,” he said. “We’re lucky to have power and there’s still some people who don’t, so getting generators to them are kind of priorities.

“It definitely makes life more challenging, of course, but one of the nice things is that we live off a pretty busy trailhead and no one can get there but us now, so we’ll have wonderful, quiet walks with the dogs and things like that on the trail.”

Despite his close proximity to the avalanche, Evans is easygoing about his “amazing” good fortune.

“It looks like it came down and just wrapped around the house,” he said. “It’s like God saying, ‘No, no. Don’t take that house.”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a staff photojournalist at the Anchorage Daily News.

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