Avalanche blocking Hiland Road in Eagle River, power restored to most affected residents

An avalanche blocking Hiland Road up South Fork Eagle River has trapped residents behind the slide path, and knocked out power to many.
Published: Mar. 25, 2022 at 7:27 AM AKDT|Updated: Mar. 25, 2022 at 9:49 PM AKDT
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EAGLE RIVER, Alaska (KTUU) - An avalanche blocking Hiland Road up South Fork Eagle River on Friday morning with depths of up to 80 feet cut off access for some residents behind the slide path, initially knocking out power to many.

The avalanche was first reported around 11:30 p.m. Thursday night when Matanuska Electric Association noticed that approximately 145 customer homes in the Hiland Road area had lost power, which is 40% of the customers in that sector.

By Friday evening, the electric association had restored power to most affected residents, according to spokesperson Jennifer Castro.

“Our line crews were able to install a temporary line and reconnect the system, restoring power around 8:45 p.m.,” Castro said via email. “There are still a handful of residences closest to the avalanche without power and our understanding is most of those homes were evacuated in case of additional avalanches.”

The utility will still need to replace poles and damaged equipment, Castro said, once the snow and debris is cleared from the road and it’s safe to access.

In a post on its Facebook page earlier Friday, the utility said it had learned it could take five days or more to clear the road.

According to a community alert, Anchorage police were on scene around 1:15 a.m. at a section of 2400 Hiland Road, near South River Lane. Observations taken both on foot and by drone showed a wall of snow, with initial measurements of “40+ feet of snow,” — roughly the size of a four story building — covering a section of Hiland Road. City officials later said it was as deep at 80 feet in some areas.

A community alert provided by the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management said that emergency crews were monitoring access beyond the avalanche and could assist with evacuation of residents if necessary. There are additional slide warnings in effect for the surrounding area.

“Do not approach or cross any part of the avalanche,” the alert said. “Road access is unavailable and an alternate route is set up for emergency access. Residents are asked to shelter in place away from area avalanche slide zones and await further instructions.”

According to the alert, an emergency evacuation trail has been established from the affected neighborhood to the end of West River Drive.

“This trail leads to an exit trailhead adjacent to 3650 Birdsong Dr.,” the alert reads. “The evacuation route is suitable for foot traffic to exit only.”

On Friday night, the emergency management office sent out another message that said the area remains unsafe to non-emergency traffic, and that residents within an evacuation zone have been contacted. A shelter has been set up for evacuees by the Red Cross at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center.

The emergency management office said that mitigation strategies “may” begin on Saturday.

Police said no homes were directly affected by the avalanche and no people appear to be trapped in the snow. They did add that residents uphill of 2200 Hiland Road may have limited utilities. MAT+SAR Search & Rescue, a nonprofit that works in coordination with the Alaska State Troopers, also said in a Facebook post that it appears “no houses or humans were buried.”

Police advised residents not to walk or drive snowmachines on the avalanche slide, as the snowpack may be unstable.

The National Weather Service issued an avalanche warning at the request of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center through 6 a.m. Saturday. The warning covers the Western Chugach and Kenai Mountain, including areas around Girdwood, Portage, Turnagain Pass, Moose Pass, Summit Lake, Lost Lake and Seward.

Anchorage police also said other agencies are helping clear the slide, including a National Weather Service meteorologist, the Anchorage Fire Department, Mat-Su Search and Rescue, Alaska Solstice Search Dogs, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Anchorage Street Maintenance, are on site to help monitor and alert officials to changing weather conditions.

Residents who live up in the valley said the avalanche is the biggest one they can recall in the area. Eric Stice has lived up Hiland Road since 1984, and said he was driving down the road early Friday morning to get his wife and a neighbor to the airport to catch a flight when he came across the slide.

“We came down close to seven-mile, I’m up at eight-mile, and there was a 25-foot wall of white,” Stice recalled. “I stopped, turned around and said, now I know why the power’s been out for three hours.

“... That pile of snow is solid,” he continued. “We’ve had a few avalanches up here in the 35 years since we’ve built our house, and none of them this big. None.”

Paul Hunstiger also lives beyond the path of the avalanche, and said he expects the job of clearing the snow to be very difficult.

“It’s 40 foot tall, 120-125 yards wide,” Hunstiger said. “That’s a lot of snow, and it’s packed in like concrete.”

Hunstiger lives on South Creek Road, off Hiland Road, with his wife. They share a home that utilizes a backup electrical system that runs on wind and solar energy. Hunstiger said while his home may be equipped with enough reserve power to last a lengthy delay, he has concerns for others around him.

“I’ve got a bunch of elderly neighbors and I would hate to think that something would happen, we couldn’t get assistance to them,” he said. “I’m just concerned with people having health issues or something, and then not being able to get help.”

The longtime Eagle River resident also said it’s not surprising to see an avalanche knock out power and block the only road to town, but what he is surprised by is the sheer size of the slide. Huntsinger predicted it won’t be the last.

“There’s been avalanches up here for years,” he said. “There’s been so much snow, this year in particular, and a lot of wind, and those cornices build up on that downwind side, and there’s avalanche chutes all along this valley. And I think this is just going to be the first.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information and quotes.

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