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News / Clark County News

Work begins on repair of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway

Road, bridge were wiped out by debris slide in May

By Sydney Brown, The Daily News
Published: June 29, 2023, 6:44pm
4 Photos
Scarsella Brothers, Inc. employees work to install culverts at the site of the South Coldwater Slide on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway on Thursday.
Scarsella Brothers, Inc. employees work to install culverts at the site of the South Coldwater Slide on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway on Thursday. (Katelyn Metzger/The Daily News) Photo Gallery

LONGVIEW — The rumble of dump trucks and smell of dark soil filled the air on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway on Thursday, as bright-vested crews worked to quickly fix the damage done by what officials called an uncommonly destructive debris slide last month that wiped out a key access point to Mount St. Helens.

The Washington State Department of Transportation, under an emergency contract, is overseeing the efforts to clear debris that destroyed an 80-foot bridge and both lanes of the road leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on State Route 504.

The observatory is closed for the summer, said Gala Miller, Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s public affairs officer.

WSDOT crews are hoping to reopen full public access to the road by spring 2024. Under the 30-day emergency contract, crews will install two new drainage pipes where the bridge once stood and build a one-lane detour road visitors can use to get around.

The slide happened May 14, when 300,000 cubic yards of material skated down the hillside, taking out trees and some concrete with it, all within a half-hour.

WSDOT project engineer Paul Mason told reporters Thursday the slide happened fast, with 120 dump trucks-worth of debris pouring down the hillside every minute.

“If you were standing right here when it happened, you were sinking in,” Mason said. “Having those 300,000 cubic yards of debris from one slide is definitely not common.”

The roads around Spirit Lake Memorial Highway are blocked to the public. The triangular-shaped closure area starts roughly at the Hummocks Trailhead and ends just west of the still-open Harry’s Ridge boundary, according to an updated map provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

The area is now much more stable, Mason said. The U.S. Forest Service reduced the original closure area two weeks ago, according to a news release.

Crews have made good progress on finishing the emergency project, Mason said, which was approved through state and federal authorities and allowed them to swiftly hire a contractor to start excavation.

The state has a list of contractors it turns to when emergencies like this happen, Mason said; they chose Scarsella Brothers Inc. for this particular project.

Mason said he estimates the current project to cost roughly $500,000 — paid for with state funds that are set aside for natural emergencies like this one — and spans 2 to 3 acres. They hope to get the expense reimbursed through the federal government at some point.

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This project is a short-term solution, he said. Both state and federal officials will have to work together in the next year on establishing better-protected structures in case a landslide like this happens again.

“We do not have funding, we do not have a design,” Mason said. “There are a lot of questions about what we’ll be able to do in terms of long-term solutions.”

Miller said the slide closed the Johnston Ridge Observatory indefinitely — only one day before it was set to open for the spring and summer, according to a previous report in The Daily News. This will result in lost revenue for the U.S. Forest Service, revenue that goes toward upkeep of facilities, paying staff and providing other services.

“It will be closed for the rest of the summer,” Miller said, “which means we won’t have any of that fee collection for 2023. That also means we won’t have as many services in 2024.”

The U.S. Forest Service said in a news release the closures will not affect any trail or Coldwater Lake access in the area, but those wishing to hike or bike on the South Coldwater Trail should stay on the shoulder of the highway.

People can still visit the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily; the Forest Learning Center on 17000 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway; and the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake at 3029 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

The Hummocks Trail also recently reopened, and if hikers want to undertake an 11-mile round-trip, they can hike up to the closed observatory.

“We don’t want the message to be, ‘Don’t come,’ ” Miller said.

Mason said weather played a role in the slide, with the region experiencing an unusually cold, wet winter followed by abruptly hot, dry weather. The sudden change in temperature and humidity likely loosened some of the debris.

Mason said there was no unusual seismic activity recorded before or after the slide, adding, “It wasn’t an earthquake or anything like that.”

The landslide started about 2,000 feet above where the bridge once stood, Mason said.

“It would have been breathtaking to see,” Mason said, “and thankfully, no one was hurt.”

Long-term fixes will have to wait while crews finish installing the culverts and detour roads, Mason said.

WSDOT must work with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to secure permits and design new plans, he said.

Impacts to businesses and the Mount St. Helens Institute are already being felt, Miller said.

The Institute hosts educational school trips up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, but after the slide, Miller said several schools canceled out of an abundance of caution. The food truck that stood outside the observatory will have to move.

Still, the U.S. Forest Service has pivoted and will set up a makeshift observatory out of the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center, Miller said. They quickly installed new facilities and will provide as many of the services as they can considering the circumstances.

“I think it’s an interesting time for all of us,” Miller said.

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