ANCHORAGE A massive landslide consumed a 100-foot span of the rugged, cliffhanging Copper River Road early Sunday, trapping 80 to 90 vehicles and an unknown number of people in the popular salmon dipnet fishery with no way to get their vehicles out.
"It looks like some of those folks are going to be in there for a few days," said Rich Webster, forest warden for the Division of Forestry for the Copper River-Glennallen area. "It's a major landslide."
The Chitina Dipnetters Association said on its Web site Sunday that the slide struck at 4:30 a.m. and stranded at least 125 people downstream.
No one was known to be caught in the slide, about a mile south of O'Brien Creek, Webster said.
"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 people 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 highway 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 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 below Chitina only became drivable about seven to eight years ago after Gov. Wally Hickel authorized road work, Bloom said.
Road maintenance crews moved a bulldozer and a grader down the highway toward the slide, Webster said. But officials told Webster it's not clear what can be done in the near term, short of blasting a new road.
"DOT has a major problem," he said. "The problem is anything they move from down below on the road is just going to cause more debris and rocks to come down from above. . . . I don't expect the road to be cleared in the next few days."
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