By Tess Williams Updated: March 28, 2022Published: March 25, 2022
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An avalanche late Thursday covered upper Hiland Road in Eagle River’s South Fork Valley, narrowly missing several homes and prompting power outages that affected more than 100 residences.
There was no indication that people were trapped, Anchorage police said. Residents were asked to shelter in place overnight Friday and about 27 homes were in an evacuation zone. It was not clear by Saturday afternoon when debris cleanup — a process likely to take several days — would begin.
Additional slide warnings were issued for the area, and on Saturday, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson issued an emergency disaster declaration and requested state assistance to help with the response.
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.
The slide funneled snow down a mountainside gully before fanning out across the road and encroaching on homes. The debris was between 60 to 80 feet deep and stretched across a section of the road roughly the size of a football field, said Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
Numerous agencies responded to ensure there were no people trapped in the avalanche.
More than 100 homes uphill of the avalanche and in the South River Lane area will not have road access until the avalanche debris is cleared, which police said will take several days.
The remaining snowpack above the Hiland Road slide continues to pose a danger to residents, Anchorage emergency management officials said Saturday evening. Officials are evaluating different options, including conducting avalanche mitigation work that would lead to a controlled release of the slab of concern. Avalanche assessors surveyed the area by ski and snowmachine Friday afternoon, according to Young.
City officials said that “a plan is being finalized” with the goal of establishing a timeline that will allow “residents the greatest time to prepare in a safe manner.”
Once the area is deemed safe, road crews will begin to remove the snow. But it’s not yet clear when debris removal can start, said Misty Nesvick, a spokeswoman for the municipality’s emergency management office.
Most residents were asked to shelter in place Friday night and stay away from any avalanche slide zones.
“We heard that folks are trying to bring in supplies to residents and are walking across part of the avalanche — there’s no safe part of the slide to be walking or traversing,“ she said.
Officials asked residents in about 27 homes to evacuate on Friday evening, said Nesvick. The Red Cross opened a temporary shelter for evacuees at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center.
An emergency evacuation route was established at the end of West River Drive, according to a statement from the city’s emergency management office.
“This trail leads to an exit trailhead adjacent to 3650 Birdsong Drive,” the statement said. “The evacuation route is suitable for foot traffic to exit only. Emergency crews are monitoring access at both ends of this pathway and can assist evacuating residents as needed.”
Medical helicopters would be able to reach the area if an emergency arises, Young said.
More than 100 members were without power much of Friday, though power had been restored to many by late that night, Matanuska Electric Association wrote on Facebook.
The association wrote that the avalanche destroyed electrical equipment, including downing at least one line and breaking at least two poles. Crews installed a temporary line to bring many back in service, but restoring power to the rest of the members still affected by outages will involve replacing poles and repairing equipment — work that can only be done once the debris has been cleared, Matanuska Electric Association wrote.
As of Saturday afternoon, 40 residences closest to the avalanche site remained without power. The association wrote that there wasn’t an estimate available for when it would be safe for crews to begin repairs.
The avalanche likely released naturally, said Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. Much of Southcentral Alaska experienced high winds overnight into Friday, she said. Strong winds can load the slope by depositing snow from one area to another, adding weight to the snowpack.
“I think the winds probably played a role and there’s clearly a weak snowpack for this large of an avalanche to be released all at the same time,” she said. “Often you’ll just get pieces of slopes that will avalanche, and it appears that this is quite large with a lot of snow and volume coming down all together.”
People have triggered avalanches in recent weeks in nearby portions of Chugach State Park. There are several weak layers buried in the snowpack from storms early on in the season, Wagner said. She noted that broadly, places that have experienced strong winds and snowfall would see an increase in avalanche hazard.https://c0c7fc8d363d0860f243182569bdf780.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Farther south, several feet of new snow fell in Girdwood and Turnagain Pass overnight into Friday, which increased the risk of natural and human-triggered avalanches. Avalanche danger was high at all elevations throughout those areas Friday and Saturday.
Wagner recommended avoiding travel in avalanche terrain and runout zones. The snow and wind subsided Saturday, but dangerous conditions persisted.
“The first sunny day after a storm is the most dangerous,” she said. “This is extremely dangerous because we have weak layers and very big avalanches that people could trigger that are completely unmanageable and deadly.”
Daily News reporter Annie Berman contributed.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.