Mudslides destroy Crandall area cabins

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Two Crandall area cabins have effectively been destroyed by mudslides in recent days.

The cabins are located off Park County Road XUX — also known as the Squaw Creek Road — on chunks of private property within the Shoshone National Forest. The road has been temporarily closed to travel, as parts of the route are slipping away or are covered in feet of wet mud and debris.

When Charlie Cooley arrived at his cabin around 7:30 a.m. Sunday, the road was still passable and “it wasn’t that bad,” he said. But he soon heard something coming down the hillside.

“We could hear all the breaking trees and just kind of these huge thumping noises — which ultimately ended up being rocks and stuff falling off the top [of the mountain],” Cooley said.

He backed up his truck to get out of the slide path — not too long before a roughly 40-foot-wide muddy slurry arrived, carrying tree trunks and rocks. One wing of the cabin was torn away from the rest of the structure.

“It was just real slow-moving and then just kind of broke loose and really took to raging down the side of it for sure,” said Cooley, who lives in Cowley.

By Wednesday afternoon, the cabin — which Cooley and his wife bought from his grandmother a year and a half ago — had been ripped apart and pushed down the hill by the sliding earth.

A neighboring cabin, owned by Ardell Smith of Powell, has also suffered substantial damage and been knocked off its foundation. That cabin had been rebuilt in 2013, after a fatal fire claimed the previous structure a few years earlier.

Power and phone service to the area has also been disrupted.

Cooley had driven to his cabin on Sunday thinking he might be able to bring an excavator and cut a trench to divert the slide.

But, “to see the magnitude of it, there’s just no way. There’s nothing you could do about it,” he said, adding, “The power of that’s not anything an excavator could fix.”

Park County Engineer Brian Edwards said the county’s road and bridge crews are similarly stymied by the wet earth.

“Things are still moving” and although no other cabins are believed to be at risk, the slide is “getting a little wider,” Edwards said Wednesday evening. It’s reached the yard of a third cabin, owned by Bob Senitte, who works in the county engineer’s office.

“It looks like it’s far enough from his cabin that he [Senitte] should be OK, but it’s pretty spooky for him to be watching that,” Edwards said.

The ground will have to dry out before the work of clearing and rebuilding two or three “pretty bad” parts of the road can start, he said.

Part of the concern is that crews don’t want to weaken the “toe” of the slope and further destabilize it.

“It’s hard for the people that live up there ... I know that they want us to come right in and fix it,” Edwards said Tuesday. “It’s just that you can create a bigger mess and bigger problem and an unsafe situation by going in willy-nilly and trying to do something [before] it stabilizes.”

“It’s kind of a helpless situation,” he added.

With the county road shut down, emergency access to the properties located beyond the slides has been provided via a private road that crosses a nearby ranch.

Beth Rodriguez and her husband Paul were at the family cabin on the upper Squaw Creek road over Memorial Day. She said it may be a long time until they get back to their cabin.

“We built our cabin in 1976, and we’ve never seen anything like this before,” Rodriguez said, describing trees and boulders carried off the mountain in the wake of snowmelt and heavy spring moisture.

“It’s not safe until that stuff stops running off the mountain,” she said.

Edwards and others similarly said mudslides are not a common problem in the Squaw Creek area. But it’s been a wet couple of years.

“I think just with the last couple winters, just getting so much snow up there and the snowpack, the ground’s saturated and everything’s sliding,” Edwards said.

Less than a mile from the main slide area, on nearby Rustic Road, another chunk of land, perhaps 100 yards wide, is sliding down a hillside. However, the soil is moving slowly and doesn’t appear to be threatening houses, so “we have some time on that one,” said Sue Stresser, the district ranger for the Shoshone National Forest’s North Zone.

That area above Rustic Road has probably been slowly slipping since the large fires that hit the Yellowstone area in 1988, she said.

“Now ... because these last two winters have been so wet after being in a drought, it’s like this huge heavy sponge that has sopped up all this moisture and it’s just starting to slide because of gravity,” Stresser said.

She added there’s often nothing forest officials can do to mitigate a slide.

“If it’s coming off National Forest System lands, there’s not a lot we can do from a ‘how do you control Mother Nature’ standpoint,” Stresser said.

County crews have been dealing with washouts in other areas, including on the upper South Fork. There’s also been slide activity on the North Fork. Earlier this month, land slid into a pond on the Prince Ranch in the Wapiti area, sending water down the hill toward another property, said Park County Homeland Security Coordinator Mart Knapp.

However, the slides on Road XUX are by far the most severe.

“What we’re worried about is if we get more rain,” Edwards said.

There’s a chance for more precipitation today (Thursday).

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