Taylor Highway remains closed by washouts

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Much of the Taylor Highway will remain closed at least until Thursday as crews work to repair washouts and reach stranded drivers, the state Transportation Department said.

The mostly gravely highway in Interior Alaska was cut or covered with mudslides in multiple places after heavy weekend rains. Up to 30 people were stranded, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The Alaska National Guard sent a helicopter Tuesday to check a vehicle submerged at O'Brien Creek. Maj. Guy Hayes said rescuers roped down but found no one around.

The highway runs 160 miles from the Alaska Highway just east of Tok, to Eagle on the Yukon River. The Taylor Highway is still open from the Alaska Highway to Chicken at mile 67. Between miles 67 and 160, the Taylor Highway is impassable, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The department's superintendent in Tok, Dennis Bishop, said Alaska state troopers who flew the length of the highway landed at places and offered rides to stranded motorists but they decided to stay with the cars.

The river gauge for Fortymile River at the Taylor Highway bridge shows the water level rose more than 20 feet between Sunday and Monday, topping the previous record level from 1979, said Rick Thoman, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

Chicken and the O'Brien Creek area both reported 3.2 inches of rain during the storm, according to the National Weather Service.

"Three inches for that part of the world is a lot of rain," Thoman said. "The annual precipitation in that area is in the order of 10 to 12 inches a year," and that's mainly melted snow. So the storm dumped a quarter of the usual annual precipitation in the space of 30 hours.

While the Taylor Highway sometimes gets washed out in small sections, the large scale damage is unusual, Bishop said.

Three DOT crews were working Tuesday to bulldoze "a very rough one-lane road to get anyone who is trapped out," the superintendent said.

Most of the workers live in Tok and others are in Eagle. They are stationed Monday through Friday in camps. When the road washed out Sunday evening, some on the Eagle side had to use four-wheelers to get to their equipment, Bishop said.

As one crew was working on the Chicken Creek bridge Sunday night, the road fell apart behind the workers, cutting them off from the DOT maintenance station and camp at South Fork, he said.

"We didn't realize how bad it was until late Sunday evening," Bishop said.

A lot of the Taylor Highway is perched on a hillside and it is one lane for stretches. It doesn't meet modern road standards.

"There are places we call the goat trail, if that gives you any indication," Bishop said.

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