With Fatal 2014 Landslide in Mind, Washington State Prepares for Another One

by | January 8, 2018

By Erik Lacitis

The specter of Oso 2014 can't help but loom in the thoughts of those dealing with the potential slide here at Rattlesnake Ridge.

There is Marcelina Butron, one of 63 people who lives in a ramshackle collection of trailers and a couple of buildings just below the quarry, some 4 miles south of Yakima.

Most of them work in the fruit industry here -- picking apples in the orchards, pruning the trees, packing in the warehouses.

With monthly rent at $400 to $500 for one of the 15 units, that's in the budget for people making $11 or $12 an hour, or $18 to $29 for filling up one of those large apple bins.

"Everyone is scared, terrified," says Butron in Spanish. "They're scared of the mountain."

It is early Friday afternoon and her son, Luis Butron, has loaded up a trailer and his pickup with her bed, furniture and kitchen stuff. He's taking it to a storage facility.

She says she doesn't know what will happen next.

The quarry is run by Columbia Asphalt & Gravel. The company is paying for motel rooms for the 63 people for the next five weeks. The state and Red Cross are trying to find lodging for the residents after that.

Yakima County also is looking for volunteers to temporarily care for and shelter 100 chickens and eight small dogs that aren't going to the motels. The effect of an evacuation reverberates.

The quarry has been in operation for some three decades. The crushed black rocks you see on roads? That's the lava rock.

Butron liked living in her small community by the ridge. "Muy tranquilo," she says in Spanish, "Very quiet."

But now the quarry, which at its highest point is 400 feet above Interstate 82 that borders it on the west side, looms with possible danger.

The quarry, dug into the ridge, contains at least 1.5 million cubic feet of volcanic rock, according to Steve Reidel, research professor of geology at Washington State University, Tri-Cities.

 

Nightmare scenario

Whatever the amount of rock left in the ridge, it's a massive quantity to consider tumbling down, a nightmare scenario that began unfolding in October when a local pilot reported seeing a large crack on top of the ridge.

The list of agencies and groups dealing with the potential slide has reached 38. On Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee is visiting the site for a briefing.

The Oso landslide on March 22, 2014, killed 43 people and covered 1 square mile with mud and debris.

"Everyone thinks about it," says Brian White, one of the state Department of Transportation administrators at the scene.

In a meeting room at the Yakima Valley Office of Emergency Management, tables and white boards are set up to coordinate information for the public. Social media is monitored to see what the public is talking about.

"Why is nobody taking action?" "Why is I-82 not closed?" "The slide will dam up the river."

Well, OK, why is I-82 not closed?

Because the Department of Transportation deemed it safe, explains Kent Kaplan, a liaison officer from the Washington Military Department, which has emergency management as one of its missions.

That crevice is moving slowly -- at 1.4 feet a week. No rocks have fallen onto the highway. And in case some do tumble down, the state has placed 44 freight-train containers at the bottom of the ridge that are filled with 176 concrete barriers, making each container weigh 9 to 14 tons.

That won't stop a massive slide, but it will hold back the random falling rock.

 

Rooms with kitchens

Staying at the motel is Janeth Solorio and her extended family. They had lived in one apartment and two trailers. There is her son, her mom, her mom's husband, the husband's brother, and Solorio's own brother.

Some speak only Spanish, and all in some manner work and make run the valley's fruit industry.

Solorio is three months pregnant.

"I can't sleep at night," she says. "I hear a sound, and, OK, I don't want to hear it. I have a child. I want to keep it safe."

She means some kind of odd sound in the darkness.

"Oso. We don't want to feel what they feel," says Solorio.

The group stayed Thursday night at the Super 8 in Union Gap and asked if they could move someplace with a kitchenette.

For her group, says Solorio, "I spent $46 for McChickens. We can't afford that." They're used to doing their own cooking.

After a meeting with residents at the bottom of the ridge, Columbia Asphalt booked rooms with kitchens.

The group has put their belongings in storage. But after the five weeks of paid motel ends, they don't know what will happen, they say.

"They don't want to go back," says Solorio.

 

Experts disagree

How alarmed to be depends on which expert you believe.

Bruce Bjornstad, a retired geologist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and an independent consultant, got major news coverage by stating the elements were there for a major landslide that "could wipe out dozens of cars on the interstate" and "could potentially dam the river and affect that whole valley."

Cracks opened up on a ridge above Interstate 82 near Yakima, and has forced some evacuations. (Courtesy Steven Mack)

But an engineering firm hired by Columbia Asphalt says any slide is likely to be slow-moving and mostly contained by the mined-out pit.

Reidel, the WSU professor, says Bjornstad doesn't have background in working with basalt landslides formed from lava and "is off-base ... His scenario is possible, but it ranks in the 20 percent probability."

Whatever happens, even one hit from a basalt rock is particularly dangerous because of its sharp edges.

If you've ever driven by such old lava flows, you'll have seen the majestic sides of columns formed when the lava cools and shrinks. The rocks are from broken columns, and you can find plenty at the bottom of the quarry.

Although all 63 residents have accepted the motel stays -- some more reluctantly than others -- a few of them are going back and forth to their old residences, says Horace Ward, senior emergency planner for the valley. Maybe they're still picking up belongings, he stays. And they are, after all, their homes.

Ward is 26, "a lifetime Yakima resident," with a background as a volunteer fire responder and disaster response for the state's Department of Ecology.

He is calm in going about his job, but Ward also acknowledges the specter of Oso. If the public couldn't help but think about 2014 under the current situation, he says, "My initial thought was the same."

(c)2018 The Seattle Times