POWELL — After a thunderstorm dumped heavy rain on the eastern portion of Yellowstone National Park and the area outside the East Entrance, Kitty Creek swelled out of its banks and mud and debris poured onto the North Fork Highway from the hills above.
“The mud was 3 feet deep,” said Cody Beers, public relations specialist for the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Before crews from the department arrived, an unidentified Florida man tried to drive his car through the mess and muck. It didn’t turn out well for the driver.
“He totaled his vehicle trying to drive through it,” Beers said.
Other drivers trying to get to or exit the park had to find an alternative route or wait. A number of people from other parts of the country were temporarily stuck at Camp Buffalo Bill, said Edward Morrow, a Powell resident who witnessed the mudslide.
“There was no way out because the road [was] blocked and impassable,” he said.
A private cabin north of the highway was also damaged by the slide, according to property owners in the area.
One cabin owner spent an entire day trying to repair the road to a smattering of cabins in the area but said travel by 4x4 was advised for the owners until the road dried out.
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and WYDOT soon arrived.
The crews worked through the night to clear the mess from the two-lane highway near mile-marker 7. The road was reopened early Thursday morning.
Beers said maintaining roads in the mountains is challenging.
“Gravity is always pushing things downhill,” he said, adding, “the ground is always moving in the mountains.”
Several other issues have the department always on alert, he said.
Daily temperature swings of 30- to 50-degrees can work against maintaining smooth roads. Fires undercut plant life that stabilizes the soil. Even the location of where roads were built is problematic, he said.
The roads were cut through valleys, “without thinking too much about the long term impacts,” Beers said.
The toe, or base, of hillsides was cut out to build the roads in decades past. But over time, Beers said, gravity forces the land that was previously supported by the toe of the hill down. It can be devastating when heavy rains hit vertical landscapes.
“When we get moisture, we get saturated soil, and the mud, rocks and dead trees flow downhill,” he said.
Despite last week’s mudslide and one in the same area in June, Beers said it has been a good year for area roads and credits previous work done by the department on the problem areas. He also credits a bit of good luck.
Flooding in June almost took out three important bridges in the area. Department crews were able to clear debris prior to resorting to more invasive procedures to save the bridges, but it was touch and go for a couple days, he said.
The department is now looking into maintenance issues on the North Fork and Chief Joseph highways, attempting to make improvements that can save the roads from full reconstruction.
“The key to having good roads is having timely maintenance,” he cautioned. “There’s a point in a roads’ life where the maintenance costs start to rival what it would cost to reconstruct. If you wait too long and it goes over the edge of that cliff, then you get into a situation where you have to rebuild the entire road.”
The North Fork Highway (U.S. 14/16/20) will need a lot of work in the next few years, he said. “The condition of that roadway is reaching that point where we’re going to start having a catastrophic situation if we don’t get in and do timely maintenance.”