FEMA HAS ARRIVED And they wont let us in, says the co-chair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council.
  • Charles Mudede
  • FEMA HAS ARRIVED And they're severely restricting access—even for longtime local officials—says the co-chair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council.
Today, Bill Blake is trying to get to the top of a hill close to the Hazel slide (near the town of Oso) to figure out what the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, which has been blocked by an entire slope's worth of mud, is going to do next.

Blake has worked as a natural resource manager for the nearby city of Arlington for 14 years and has been co-chair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council for 21 years (along with Pat Stevenson of the Stillaguamish tribe). But even he's having trouble getting access.

"We're fighting today just to get a FEMA card," he says. "Even the FEMA guys won't let us in." Blake says the area is being tightly controlled: Reporters who are working for publications all over the world are being corralled for special media tours of the disaster and officers from the sheriff's department are stopping cars along highways to check whether people are responders or, as Blake puts it, "looky-loo and hiker kinds who want to see stuff. Local people are frustrated that they're being treated like the enemy."

Blake, who lives near the north fork, says the river is running gray with "glacial flour"—silt from the slope that collapsed, which used to be suspended in ice thousands of years ago—along with slivers of wood, some not much bigger than toothpicks, from pulverized trees.

Immediately after the slide, there were fears that the river blockage would result in flooding upstream and, once the blockage broke, flash-flooding downstream. The heavy rains this March, which many experts say helped contribute to the landslide, are also creating a great deal of water, energy, and pressure on the landslide blockage.

But, Blake says, early signs indicate that "the river will pick its way through" without further catastrophe.

"This mud dam is 6,000 feet across," he says. "It's not the Hoover Dam, not the Grand Coulee Dam, you know, 30 feet wide and 500 feet deep. It's 6,000 feet wide" and much shallower, giving the river a better chance to push through slowly. But he wants to get on a hillside above the damage and see "how the river's cutting, what it looks like" and get that information to local residents who, he says, "are lacking facts and they're upset about that."

That slope, Blake says, has slid three times since he moved into his place by the river 23 years ago.

"Now we're just trying to get the best information," he says, "not trying to get onsite, not in the middle of it, but up in the hills next to it to see what the river's doing and think about people's safety, the ones who are doing the work, and then think about a long-range plan."

Blake has heard all kinds of ideas about dealing with the river blockage, from letting nature take its course to shooting it with a cannon from a military aircraft to "sending DNR guys to lay out a line of dynamite" and blow it up.

But the best thing, in his opinion, is to keep calm.

"Stand back, watch nature, do you best to anticipate what's happening, and work with it," he says. "You can't change what's happened."

A LiDAR (the word is a combination of light and radar) view of the area around the Oso/Hazel slide. Bill Blake, co-chair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council, says the ripples in the south east corner of the image indicate past geological activity.
  • WFLC/UW
  • A LiDAR (the word is a combination of light and radar) view of the north fork of the Stillaguamish River near the Oso/Hazel slide. Bill Blake, co-chair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council, says the ripples in the south east corner of the image indicate past geological activity.

No matter what anybody says about the logging debate, Blake says the area's geology is sensitive. He referred to the LiDAR images (see above): "You can see from that how there have been natural slides for thousands of years, scarps that go clear across the valley. You can see how, in the last 8,000 years, the river has acted like an eraser to some of those, but you can see little lobes on the outside. Around Oso or below, there was an ice dam with glaciers melting higher up and the pressure was building up."

Then it burst, in one of many dramatic, earth-sculpting events in the area. That, he says, is where the "glacial flour" comes from.

Stones on the north fork of the Stillaguamish, arranged by color in the summer of 2011, just a few miles downstream of the mudslide.
  • Stones on the north fork of the Stillaguamish, arranged by color for an arts festival in the summer of 2011, just a few miles downstream from where the mudslide is now.

The salmon genetics in the river match the geological history, he says. The valley of the north fork of the Stillaguamish is much wider than one would expect from a river of its size—that's because it contained a much larger river long ago and waterways were diverted over time by ice sheets, plugs of sediment, and other large-scale changes in the land.

Now, as result of the diverted rivers, the north fork Stillaguamish salmon are genetically distinct from the south fork Stillaguamish salmon, even though they enter the same river (the main Stillaguamish channel) from Puget Sound to spawn and travel 22 miles up it together before the two forks diverge. "The north fork are closer to the Skagit salmon and the south fork match the Snohomish or Pilchuck salmon," he said.

Blake, like many people in the area, has a friend who's missing. "Joel," he says. "He loved it out there. He appreciated the river. He was a fisherman, so—so we'll do what we can for the river. Like I say, you can't change what's happened."