Landslide blocks dipnetters, vehicles near Chitina

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Department of Transportation crews worked throughout the night to try and clear a massive landslide that consumed a portion of the O'Brien Creek Road, stranding Copper River dipnetters.

''We think it may be open as early as this evening,'' Jim Little, DOT's director of maintenance and operation for the northern region, said early Monday afternoon.

The landslide occurred at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday about a mile past O'Brien Creek. A section of the road slid into the Copper River.

Glennallen Trooper Dennis Dupras said crews hoped to re-open one lane just long enough to get the cars and people out, and then it would be closed again.

Between 80 to 90 vehicles and as many as 300 people in the popular salmon dipnet fishery were trapped by the landslide with no way to get their vehicles out.

No one was known to be caught in the slide, said Rich Webster, forest warden for the Division of Forestry for the Copper River-Glennallen area.

''It's a major landslide,'' he said.

DOT crews were using a dozer, frontend loader and an excavater to clear the road.

The Chitina Dipnetters Association said on its Web site Sunday that the slide struck at 4:30 a.m. and stranded at least 125 people downstream.

''Folks' spirits are pretty good,'' Webster said. ''We brought in water and MREs -- just a mercy stopgap measure for those folks that need it.'' MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, are field rations.

Though people could catch rides on riverboats back to the road system at O'Brien Creek or Chitina, about four or five miles upstream, most people seemed reluctant to leave their vehicles and their salmon.

''We took in much more water than we took in food,'' Webster said. ''They've got some good salmon to eat.''

The highway collapse came after spring thaws left portions of the road in poor shape. The section that came down apparently ''gave warning,'' Webster said, and people had been telling dipnetters to avoid going south of O'Brien Creek.

''Some people didn't follow that warning,'' he said.

Stan Bloom, vice president of the association and a longtime advocate of the fishery, said he had been worried about precarious sections of the old road.

''There's dozens of areas along there that's just on the verge of sliding into the river, and it's always been that way,'' Bloom said. ''It's a dangerous road. ... We're just glad that nobody got hurt.''

Much of the road below Chitina only became drivable about seven to eight years ago after Gov. Wally Hickel authorized road work, Bloom said.

''I don't think there was anything they could have done to prevent this,'' Bloom said. ''They may have to blast to get a road back in there.''

''It looks gone,'' Webster said. ''It looks like the roadbed gave out also. It's not just rocks. Everything that was up on the hillside came down, debris, vegetation.''

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