Could it happen here? Experts weigh in on Washington mudslide

Reported by: Marissa Schwartz
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Updated: 3/27/2014 10:33 am
RENO, Nev. ( & KRNV) -- The amount of destruction and devastation caused by the massive mudslide in Oso, Washington is hard to believe, even after seeing the photos and video of the slide. For many, it begs the question: could something similar to what happened in Washington happen here in Nevada?

Jim Faulds, Director of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, is an expert on the topography of our area and what causes slides not only in northern Nevada, but around the nation.

Faulds described the Slide Mountain catastrophe of 1983 by explaining the unique weather conditions, “It started with a very heavy winter, a lot of snowfall; [it] was a prolonged winter, then a cool wet spring. What was rather unusual that year is that it then turned hot -- very hot -- in early May, so the snow melted rapidly.”

The rapid snow melt set into action a chain of events that caused thousands of tons of mud to cascade down the hillside -- flooding two lakes -- then carrying trees and other debris three miles to the bottom of Washoe Valley, killing at least one person and injuring several people.

“In late May, the south side of Slide Mountain had simply had enough; it gave way due to increased pressure of the water on the rocks and let loose in a large landslide.”

The slide in Oso and the slide in Washoe Valley are somewhat similar: both took place after extended periods of heavy snow and rain fall. The heavy precipitation caused the ground to saturate before giving way. The biggest difference, however, between the two slides is the size and the extent of the devastation.

According to Faulds, the area impacted by the slide in Washington spans over at least a square mile. The event in Washoe valley was rather localized.

When asked if a landslide that massive could happen here in the Truckee Meadows, Faulds cautions that while it is a possibility, it isn’t likely because we don’t see the same extended amounts of precipitation as are experienced in the Pacific Northwest.

However, some of the stronger winter storms in the Sierra Nevada can bring conditions that may trigger slides. “This area, like much of the west coast is prone to atmospheric rivers, [in which] moisture gets trained into one location for prolonged periods," says Faulds, “Thus, you can saturate your soil with heavy amounts of water.”

More common here in Northern Nevada are smaller land slides like those we saw frequently throughout the summer of 2013 in the I-80 corridor near Floriston and Verdi.

Thankfully, Slide Mountain -- for the most part -- has remained stable since Memorial Day, 1983. But, as Faulds points out, there’s always potential for a mountain with topography like Slide Mountain to give way.

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Kramer - 3/26/2014 2:16 PM
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I was driving to Reno on 80 in 1979 when a huge boulder fell, hopped across to the EBound side, and crushed the front of a VW microbus. Later some protective fencing was installed. I wouldn't rule out landslides or mudslides locally, especially after fires and where there are loosely consolidated materials. One "local" slide in the Truckee Canyon closed the Interstate for 3 days.

kdavis52 - 3/26/2014 12:27 PM
0 Votes
I was in Ferndale Washington for a good 3 months tidying up and clearing out my parents estate. In that time I witnessed an abundance of snow, rain, and just plain scary winds from the FRAZIER VALLEY. I had my eye on the OLD GROWTH conifer trees in the neighborhood as they swayed back and forth in the high winds. I was worried that one of those big trees would uproot and take out a couple houses. In 1996 I lived in Portland OR during the flooding and saturation of hillsides. I saw on the news the landslide in the housing developement that is now famous on television at that time where the mud and trees were shoving trucks and Cadillacs down the street. Now that I am back in good old Reno, I feel a little relief because we're not saturated.

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