A forest road that has been used as an emergency bypass around a landslide on State Highway 14 is close to becoming unusable as the weather continues to warm and the road bed softens.
U.S. Forest Service and Idaho County officials have decided to end evening trips into the small hamlet starting Monday, making today’s 6 p.m. trip the last for the foreseeable future. Morning trips exiting Elk City at 6 a.m. will continue on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with trips into town following roughly an hour or so later.
County Commissioner Skip Brandt said the move was recommended by county and Forest Service employees on the ground with the most up-to-date information.
Hank Godwin, a member of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest engineering department, said daytime temperatures are too high to keep the roadbed frozen and firm.
“It’s not conducive to afternoon travel when it’s 42 degrees and raining,” he said.
It is possible that within a relatively short time period access will be totally closed. I encourage that plans commence or continue to find alternate access to Elk City.
Forest engineer Donald D. Curnutt in a memo to county and state officials
Godwin and Idaho County sheriff’s deputy Mike Chlebowski have been leading caravans in and out of Elk City and keeping tabs on road conditions. Chlebowski said he hopes the morning shuttles won’t suffer the same fate.
“Hopefully, the weather will cooperate,” he said.
But that could happen. In a memorandum to county and state officials Thursday, forest engineer Donald D. Curnutt recommended shuttle times on Newsome Forest Road 1199 be cut back to ensure safe passage for people coming to and from Elk City.
“The reality is that the use of the detour route will become more and more restrictive and it is possible that within a relatively short time period access will be totally closed,” Curnutt wrote. “I encourage that plans commence or continue to find alternate access to Elk City. We are standing by to support in that effort or any other way to assist the county and state in addressing this critical issue.”
The narrow forest road has been in use since shortly after the landslide occurred Feb. 18, shutting off the only winter access to Elk City and Dixie — where about 300 people live. The hillside gave way and dumped tons of rock, mud and downed timber across 500 feet of roadway and into the South Fork of the Clearwater River.
Brandt said Thursday the 20-mile forest route that includes part of the historic Elk City Wagon Road was intended for essential and emergency use only, but there have been some abuses.
“I’m just surprised it’s lasted as long as it has,” he said. “We have had a few nonresidents going in on the caravan and one of them got stuck and held things up for a while. But, again, we need to reiterate, this is for essential use only for the little bit of time that we have left.”
Meanwhile, the Idaho Transportation Department has not yet awarded a bid to a major contractor to begin moving the two-story-sized rock lodged midway up at the landslide. That would open a single lane over the lower end of the spill.
The landslide covered about 500 feet of highway to a depth of 40 feet with possibly 100,000 tons of debris
Reed Hollinshead, a spokesman for the department, said smaller contractors, however, have removed downed timber from the upper reaches of the slide and as of Wednesday had hauled away 2,200 cubic yards of material from the lower area. At this time the material is being hauled to a roadside pullout at milepost 34 and a rock pit east of Elk City off the Mother Lode road.
“The plan right now is being finalized (to hire a major contractor),” Hollinshead said. “It’s a collaborative effort with all the agencies on the ground ... and the residents. We’re all working together to get this thing done.”
Hollinshead said the time frame he has heard — if the weather cooperates — will see a complete clearing of the landslide by early April.
Before then, however, the department expects to open one lane across the bottom of the slide and allow alternating traffic to pass.
There have been six dump trucks and two excavators on site to remove material, he said, but crews have been hampered by intermittent rain that increases the instability of the hillside.
The department announced Thursday it has received $500,000 in emergency funds from the Federal Highway Administration to help repair the damage caused by the landslide.
The state will receive federal “quick release” funds so the repair work can begin as damage assessments continue.
The commissioners last week declared a county disaster because of the slide, which was followed up by an emergency declaration by Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter, setting in motion the release of federal assistance.