Landslide danger at Rattlesnake Ridge in Yakima County causes evacuations

UNION GAP, Wash. — Emergency officials in Yakima County racing to get ready for a landslide that could start at any minute. Dozens of people have been evacuated from their homes, and WSDOT is bringing in freight cars filled with cement barriers, to stop falling debris from reaching Highway 82.

The earth on Rattlesnake Ridge opened up when a 250-foot-deep fissure appeared just a few hundred yards above a neighborhood.

WSDOT closed a large stretch of Thorp Road after rocks started falling onto the road Thursday from the hill above. The debris is getting pushed down by the slow-moving, 20-acre piece of land.

Yakima Valley’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) says the land is sliding 1.4 feet per week, but says as it slides, it’s gaining momentum.

“The slide will increase in movement to the point where there will be a large movement of that mass,” said Horace Ward, senior emergency planner with the OEM.

It means a landslide, will happen and could strike at any time. Ward says their contracted geologists have figured out a time frame.

“Starting today with the 15th (of January) being the most plausible date,” Ward said.

Ward says his biggest concern is making sure people are aware of the risk.

Ward, along with local firefighters and members of the Washington State Emergency Division, knocked on doors Thursday afternoon. They again, advised the more than 50 people who live in the neighborhood – which is right in the landslide’s path -– to evacuate, immediately.

Rocks from the landslide are already falling onto the road below

“Probably the size of basketballs, or baseball size on the smaller side,” said Meagan Lott, a spokesperson for WSDOT.

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Crews lined 600 feet of Thorp Road closest to I-82 with about 30 freight cars, some brought to Yakima County from Seattle and Tacoma. Then bulldozers filled each freight car with up to 14-tons tons of cement barriers to weigh the cars down.

The purpose is to stop debris falling off the hill from spilling onto the busy Highway 82.

“The freight containers are mainly going to stop smaller debris, moderate rock fall. It’s not going to stop a complete landslide,” Lott said.

WSDOT says if the rocks coming off the hill get bigger – say boulder or small vehicle sized – they will shut down the highway. Lott also says if geologists indicate the landslide picks up significant speed, it will shut down the highway.

KIRO7 also asked the OEM if there’s anything that can be done to stop the slide and if detonating the land is an option.

“Putting people on top of a moving landslide isn’t the safest option. You add explosives and you’re further complicating an issue. Letting it run its natural course is the best option, and just keeping an incredibly close eye on any of its activity,” Ward said.

He says with nothing crews can do to stop the slide, their focus is minimizing damage and planning the response for after the landslide happens.

Ward says Washington State law means officials can’t force people to leave their homes during an evacuation. He says at first some people in the community at the base of the hill didn’t believe the risk, but now about 70 percent of people have evacuated to a Red Cross shelter in Yakima, or to stay with relatives.

Ward says he hopes to convince all to evacuate by the end of the week.

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