ARLINGTON, Wash. -- There’s more evidence that the state had considered the area slide-prone two years before a report warning of the potential for a major disaster. It even has a name: the Hazel Landslide.
Snohomish County made it quite clear that millions of dollars in mitigation work since the last slide in 2006 should have made the slope as safe as possible, but according to the state forester, there was a reason logging hadn’t been allowed on that slope since the 1990s.
In the slide zone Thursday, the slow process of looking for the victims proceeds very carefully – stopping, checking, then proceeding again. What was a neat neighborhood is now a jumble.
“There’s trees, mud, dirt, residences, cars, motorhomes, boats. Anything everyone would have in a neighborhood is now strewn out here. So it’s going inch by inch out here and looking,” said Steve Mason, NW Incident Command Team.
And the question hangs over it all: Just how dangerous was Hazel Hill above?
Close up aerial photos released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey show amidst the Ice Age deposits of sand, clay, silt and gravel that collapsed, up to seven million cubic yards broke loose.
And lots and lots of trees came down with it. There’s a reason for so many trees. Logging’s been banned on this slope for the last 17 years.
“This area was under a set of protections as put in place in 1997,” said Aaron Everett, state forester with the Department of Natural Resources.”The state rules are set up to identify the areas that are at the highest risk of a landslide.”
His agency, the Department of Natural Resources, also has teams of geologists. But the problem might not be about rain soaking the hill from the top, but the hill’s stability deep down.
“There’s a distinction to be made about the type of landslide we’re talking about here. This was a deep seated landslide. That originates far, far underground. And that’s in contrast to shallow fast moving landslides, where the root strength of the trees has a lot to do with the landslide hazard,” said Everett.
If you look at the clean face of what is now a cliff hundreds of feet high, there are no roots down here. The agency appearing most concerned about the shallower slides commonly called “mudslides” typical during the winter months.
“That’s not to say we’re not concerned with how forestry can affect the ground water mechanics that can contribute to deep seated landslides. But the idea that a bunch of trees is going to hold back a deep seated landslide is like a bunch of toothpicks could hold back a train,” said Everett.
That doesn’t mean DNR is not concerned about ground water getting down into the deeper portions of the hill. Allegations have been made in The Seattle Times that a logging company in 2005 logged several hundred feet inside the exclusion zone at the top of the slide.
On Thursday, the Department of Natural Resources released the following statement:
“We are in the process of vigorously reviewing the history of forest practices in the surrounding region.”
There have been reports that harvesting may have occurred in a prohibited area designed to protect groundwater adjacent to the landslide during the previous DNR administration, but we are still investigating and ask that our inquiry be allowed to conclude before rushing to judgment.”