Avalanche cuts off Thane Road

No known casualties; road could reopen by 6 p.m. today

Posted: Sunday, February 08, 2009

A massive avalanche cut off Thane Road and dozens of homes just before 1 p.m. on Saturday. A state transportation official said the road could be reopened by 6 p.m. today.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

A perimeter search conducted by several first responder agencies did not reveal any evidence of casualties, Juneau Police Sgt. Dave Campbell said, though a more thorough examination could not be conducted Saturday due to continued avalanche risk.

"We don't have any evidence to either confirm or deny whether anyone was on that section of the road when the avalanche occurred," Campbell said.

The avalanche buried a swath of Thane Road near mile 1 in the area known as Snowslide Gulch. Estimates vary on how much of the road was affected. Campbell said it covered about 150 feet of the roadway and was 15 feet deep. Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Roger Wetherell put it at 300 feet of roadway and 18 feet deep.

Regardless of size, the force of the slide carried the avalanche straight into Gastineau Channel.

Campbell said the police department is being inundated by calls and that officials are doing their best to locate people that have been reported unaccounted for. He encouraged callers to report back if they locate someone on their own who had previously been reported missing to police.

As with past Thane avalanches, the Department of Transportation will fire a 105 mm howitzer cannon from Douglas Island this morning to release other potentially hazardous buildups before road clearing and other work in the area can begin in earnest. Two bulldozers and two front-end loaders could have it cleared by this evening, Wetherell said.

The avalanche also took out an electric transmission line that feeds inexpensive hydroelectric power to the city, triggering a 16-minute power outage to about a quarter of all Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. customers spread over all parts of the city, said company spokesman Scott Willis.

The load shifted to a second, buried line running parallel to the above-ground line, so back-up diesel generators remain off-line.

"It's a good thing we had that redundancy," Willis said.

Willis estimated there are about 30 homes on the other side of the slide.

There are more than 19 slide paths along Thane Road, according to the city's 2004 urban avalanche response plan, with several that are particularly vulnerable to slides if unchecked.

The Department of Transportation conducts avalanche control along Thane Road a few times a year, most recently on Jan. 13, Wetherell said. He said he didn't know if this particular avalanche was preventable, and deferred comment to avalanche experts.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258.

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