Hiland Road avalanche cleanup continues, with power restored and disaster declaration extended

Emergency response officials hope that a stretch of Hiland Road in Eagle River that’s buried under tons of avalanche debris will be safe to access within two weeks. But if weather conditions raise the risk of another large slide, that timeline could slow and force residents to evacuate once again.

During a special meeting to extend Mayor Dave Bronson’s disaster declaration over last week’s avalanche, members of the Anchorage Assembly on Wednesday were briefed on operations to assist residents and clear snow, along with projected costs, which are likely to exceed $1.5 million.

Nearly 100 homes remain cut off because of the avalanche, which dumped an enormous volume of snow across a nearly mile-long section of Hiland Road in the South Fork Valley. Officials estimate the debris to be 120 feet at its deepest point.

Remarkably, none of the homes in the area were seriously damaged or destroyed, though Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said a mother-in-law unit slid 300 feet downhill and multiple vehicles remain buried under as much as 60 feet of snow.

“The size of this, it’s really hard to visualize until you’ve seen it,” Demboski said.

Residents continue to cross the area by foot trails, and on snowmachines, some of which are driven by city employees ferrying people back and forth. The city has parked public buses in the area for people to warm up in after walking out of the woods onto the road.

As of Wednesday, power has been restored to all of the homes cut off by the slide, according to the Matanuska Electric Association, although the measures are temporary fixes. MEA said it will not be able to permanently repair its equipment until the road is cleared.


[Previously: Neighbors come together after avalanche closes upper Hiland Road for at least two more weeks]

The Assembly unanimously voted to keep the disaster declaration in place through April 15. The order gives emergency managers more flexibility to order another evacuation if snowpack conditions in the area further deteriorate, and brings funding for the massive snow removal operation and transportation workarounds currently in place.

Over the weekend, emergency managers ordered residents in the area to evacuate while they assessed conditions and later detonated explosives to mitigate further avalanche hazards.

Close to 25,000 square feet of road remain covered in snow, according to data from the municipality. Trucks hauling snow out of the area to snow dumps will need to make approximately 4,000 trips to clear the area, Demboski told the Assembly. If conditions cooperate, emergency responders hope to have the area snow-free and safe for transit within two weeks.

That, however, could change if weather conditions create a risk for a secondary avalanche.

“Every bit of snow or wind changes that environment hourly,” said Alex Boyd, assistant fire chief for the Anchorage Fire Department. “If that risk does increase, we will have to go back into an evacuation phase.”

The Assembly also approved a request from Bronson to spend up to $1.5 million for services connected to the disaster. $500,000 of that money is marked for overtime to public employees helping with operations, including Parks and Rec staff snowmachining residents past the slide area. The remaining $1 million is authorized to pay for snow removal, work currently being done by McKenna Brothers Paving.

That arrangement elicited questions from Assembly members about why McKenna Brothers is the sole contractor. The company was a major funder of Bronson’s run for mayor, affixing political signs to its trucks and hosting a fundraiser that was ultimately part of the $56,650 fine recommended by the Alaska Public Offices Commission for campaign finance violations by the Bronson campaign. Company co-owner Mark McKenna also spent $75,000 on a failed political effort to recall Midtown Assembly member Meg Zaletel last year.

Demboski said that because the area falls within a Rural Road Service Area, plowing and snow removal is handled by a private company, which in this case was already McKenna Brothers.

“Currently the Eagle River/Chugiak area is served by a private contractor, and so we’re utilizing that contractor to do the snow hauling operations,” Demboski said, adding that fully clearing the road will likely require more money. “It would not be surprising if we exceeded the current authority on that contract, just because of the size and scope of this particular avalanche.”

The $1.5 million will come out of city’s Areawide General Fund, though the administration expects the state of Alaska to fully reimburse disaster-related expanses.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.