Landslide blocks dipnetters, vehicles near Chitina

Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Road workers Monday bulldozed a makeshift roadway across a massive landslide south of Chitina, allowing authorities to evacuate about 300 Copper River dipnetters stranded in the isolated spot.

Authorities escorted vehicles across the rugged 450-foot-long collapsed section three at a time after clearing the slide about 3:40 p.m. Monday. The evacuation was completed Monday night.

Once the motorists south of the slide were evacuated, the road was closed until the state Department of Transportation can evaluate the stability of the slide area.

The ten-mile road along steep Wood Canyon follows part of a historic railroad right-of-way built to haul ore 195 miles from the former copper mine near McCarthy to Cordova. The mine closed in 1938 and the railroad was abandoned. The road now ends a few miles south of the slide area.

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 and tons of dirt and rock collapsed from the steep hillside above.

Between 80 to 90 vehicles and as many as 300 people dipnetting for salmon 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 used a bulldozer, front end loader and an excavator to rebuild the roadway.

''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 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 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 Chitina Dipnetters 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 south of Chitina only became drivable about seven to eight years ago after Gov. Walter Hickel authorized the road work.

''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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