FAIRBANKS - Dozens of Salcha homes were turned into waterfront property over the weekend when a half-mile-wide ice jam caused the Tanana River to overflow its banks.
River water diverted to Piledriver Slough and spill over its banks, creating a flood the National Weather Service said was the worst in the area, about 30 miles southeast of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway, in at least 20 years.
The flood, about 3 miles wide, dumped frigid water into crawl spaces, garages, basements and ground floors of at least 50 and maybe more than 100 homes along the west side of the Richardson Highway near Mile 332.
Tim Biggane, Fairbanks North Star Borough director of emergency operations, said the mile-long ice jam wedged into a shallow part of the Tanana on Friday night. The jam caused water levels upstream to rise until the river flowed out and found a channel in the slough, usually a shallow waterway.
The water overflowed the slough and inundated the surrounding area to depths that Biggane said mostly ranged from 14 inches to 2 feet, with some deeper areas.
"If you tried to drive down the Old Richardson Highway, you'd have three and a half feet of water in spots," he said.
Barry Jennings, borough emergency operations manager, tried driving down the Old Richardson and was turned back a half mile from the Richardson Highway after water crested over his sport utility vehicle's running boards.
"Any time the tailpipe starts bubbling, it's ... time to turn around," Jennings said.
Most roads branching off the Richardson Highway disappeared under water within a few hundred feet.
At the other end of the Old Richardson, the slough had knocked out a pair of culverts and was sending a 40-to-50-foot-wide torrent through the resulting washout. North of that point, Jennings said, the water flowed into a marshy, uninhabited area, and eventually worked its way back into the Tanana.
Biggane said about 12 to 15 families fled their homes.
"There are a couple people that went to friends' houses. No one wanted to be evacuated," he said. "Everybody else is basically staying put and battling water."
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