The first convoy of people stranded since Thursday behind a landslide on State Highway 14 is expected to leave Elk City Tuesday morning.
The Idaho County commissioners held an emergency meeting with sheriff’s office and U.S. Forest Service officials Monday morning to discuss a plan to allow intermittent traffic over a treacherous mountain road that bypasses the slide. Traffic will be escorted downriver at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and back upriver starting at 3 p.m. each day. The convoy schedule next week will be on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until the highway is cleared.
The main highway into Elk City, which is about 60 miles east of Grangeville, has been blocked since Thursday. A steep hillside along the road began to slough and then buckled, dumping tons of rocks, dirt and trees into the road and the South Fork of the Clearwater River.
Idaho Transportation Department crews estimate the slide is about 40 feet at its deepest and about 500 feet long. One rock about the size of a two-story building remains precariously perched on the hillside.
A meeting to inform Elk City and Dixie residents about the convoy schedule was held at noon Monday. People there favored 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. convoy start times, but Commissioner Skip Brandt said late Monday that the original schedule will not be changed. The county does not want traffic on the road after dark, the commissioners said.
Officials stressed that keeping Newsome Creek Forest Road 1199 passable will be “touch and go” and it will depend upon people cooperating with the convoy plan.
“People have to understand that if they get stuck, they could train-wreck everybody,” Brandt said.
The one-track tree-lined gravel road over what is part of the historic Elk City Wagon Road is icy, muddy and slushy in places — with snow banks up to 5 feet deep. Idaho County road crews spent the weekend plowing out the road that had been blocked since the beginning of winter. Brandt said crews had trouble locating the shoulders of the road as their blades cut through the high drifts. Officials estimate it will take about an hour and a half for the convoy to traverse the 20-mile route from Elk City to the Newsome Creek intersection with the highway.
Traffic is expected to be restricted to high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles and snowmobiles. It may be limited to 20 vehicles each way. Sheriff’s office and highway department officials will monitor the convoys.
“If we lose this road or we get somebody stuck, we’re done,” Chief Deputy Jim Gorges said.
The landslide had initially cut off power. But once that was restored, residents spent the weekend helping each other out while they waited for progress.
Betty Nitz of Elk City said by phone Sunday that her son, Eric, has been traveling to Peasley Creek on his snowmobile each day and meeting a mail carrier from Grangeville.
“On snowmobile, the mail has been coming in every day. We haven’t missed a day of mail yet,” she said. Eric Nitz also has been able to deliver prescription medications to people who need it, she added.
“Because people up here without their medicine will panic; otherwise everything is going great,” she said. “They’ve got the power back on in this little town, and in times like this they kind of all get together and kind of help each other out.”
Road department experts have been assessing the slide area and are scheduled to meet with commissioners at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the commission meeting room to outline their plan for cleanup of the highway.
Idaho County Emergency Management Supervisor Jerry Zumalt said the county needs to push the transportation department on who should take responsibility for the landslide.
“That closure is on a state highway and this is a serious situation up there,” Zumalt said. “There are a lot of cracks and fissures up above there and this may not be the end of it. We need to have serious discussions with ITD.”
Although traffic has been stopped about two miles downriver from the slide since it happened, Sheriff Doug Giddings said that has not slowed curiosity seekers from trying to get through.
“What I’ve found out is, people who have never been to Elk City in their life are trying to get out there today,” Giddings said.