Clearing the way

Crews cut through avalanche debris on Thane Road Road reopens, but howitzer fire does little to loosen snow buildup

Posted: Monday, February 09, 2009

State road crews were able to reopen Thane Road early Sunday evening, reconnecting about 30 households to the rest of Juneau following a massive slide that blocked the road for more than a day.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

By this evening, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. workers could finish repairs to the power line that was damaged during the slide, according to an AEL&P spokesman.

On Sunday, crews began firing 105mm howitzer rounds from Douglas Island to release other potentially hazardous buildups in the area, known as Snowslide Gulch, before road clearing could begin. No additional slides were detected, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman Roger Wetherell said.

Removal crews, using two bulldozers and two front-end loaders, began hauling snow to a dump site at about 10:20 a.m. Sunday, reopening Thane Road for public use by 4 p.m.

"People were stranded on both sides, and we hope they were able to get home without any significant delay," Wetherell said.

DOT&PF had last conducted a controlled shoot on Jan. 13, one day after an avalanche downed a transmission tower leading from Lake Snettisham that forced Juneau back onto diesel generators for power.

Juneau Police Department officials said despite being inundated with calls to locate missing persons Saturday, they don't believe any residents are currently unaccounted for. No injuries connected to the avalanche have been reported.

AEL&P spokesman Scott Willis said utility crews can begin repairing a power line knocked down during the slide, possibly finishing by later this evening.

"(Crews) flew along the power line and found that one wire was pulled off and was down on the snow," he said. " The work will go fairly quick and it will probably be fixed in about a day."

About a quarter of Juneau homes experienced a power outage immediately after the slide, but power was diverted to a second, underground line. The "redundancy" prevented AEL&P from having to switch back to diesel power, Willis said.

"When repairs are done, we'll divide the load to the other line," he said. "Compared to what we just went through, this is relatively minor for us. I'm glad the damage is not more than it was, because it doesn't affect out ability to bring hydro power to Juneau. If we had damaged both lines, we'd be on diesel right now."

During his 20-plus years in Juneau, Willis has seen his share of avalanches, some of which were caused by nature and others by DOT cannons. About 10 years ago, the underground line was installed because of the high probability of slides along Thane Road, he said.

Juneau avalanche forecaster Tom Mattice said the weekend's freezing temperatures helped stabilize the area, for now.

"When you get into spring, it's a whole new situation," he said. "With below freezing temperatures and this stuff turning from a slurpie back into a block of ice, we're in pretty good shape until something changes, either with new snow or a really big warming trend."

Wetherell said his department will continue to communicate with city officials to monitor avalanche forecasts in Juneau.

"It's hard to predict when (snow) will come down, but we'll ... work with the city to best forecast when it will."

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.

• Michael Penn of the Juneau Empire contributed to this report.

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