Most of the volunteers at the Darrington Fire Department have jobs out of town, Chief Denny Fenstermaker says. During a highway closure, they might decide to stay away — leaving fewer crew members in Darrington, should there be a fire. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Most of the volunteers at the Darrington Fire Department have jobs out of town, Chief Denny Fenstermaker says. During a highway closure, they might decide to stay away — leaving fewer crew members in Darrington, should there be a fire. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Highway 530 reopens, but Darrington residents are wary

DARRINGTON — The commute started two hours early heading to or from town. Students bound for the Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center needed to be out the door by 5:15 a.m. The post office warned that mail would be a couple of hours late.

Once again, a slumping hillside cut off travel along Highway 530, this time for five days. The detour added about 80 miles each way. The highway reopened Wednesday afternoon.

People said they can make do for a few days, but more long-term closures could force families and businesses to leave town. Efforts to boost Darrington’s economy, once dependant on logging, rely on recreation, tourism and forestry. March is rainy here, and the Stillaguamish River Valley is rife with slides. If highway closures become the norm, Darrington loses its viable link to the outside — and potentially its future.

The highway and the geology

A known slow-moving and deep-seated landslide activated last week above Montague Creek, south of the highway and west of the 2014 mudslide that killed 43 people. Officials on April 3 noticed cracks in an unpaved private road. By last Friday, the hillside had shifted 4 feet.

The surface of the new slide covers 24 acres. The toe is 200 feet high.

If the entire slope gave way, it could have crossed the highway and the river and threatened homes and power lines. About a dozen properties, most along Whitman Road, were under voluntary evacuation. Not everyone left.

No movement was detected on the hill since Saturday. Monitoring continues.

The closure meant no direct route between Arlington and Darrington. The bypass road from the 2014 slide does not circumvent the Montague Creek slide. Instead, drivers had to take Highway 20 from Sedro-Woolley to the northeast end of Highway 530 at Rockport. The result: an afternoon errand took most of the day.

Many commuters were staying with friends or family “Down Below,” but not everyone had that option. The town relies on the arrival of goods and services, whether it’s fresh milk or the mail.

Wait and see

The Hampton Lumber mill employs 170 workers. It processes logs into lumber that primarily is shipped within the Pacific Northwest.

Employees were making the detour, plant manager Tim Johnson said. Log deliveries were cut in half and lumber was slower to truck out, he said. The mill has an inventory of logs, but an extended closure could have created a shortage.

“Obviously, long-term, people start having to make life choices on the time it takes,” he said. “It’s one thing to reimburse for gas. It’s another to take four hours of your daily life to make a trip to work.”

Vendors kept to schedule for the IGA grocery store, and no customers decided to stock up, co-owner Kevin Ashe said. In 2014, grocery deliveries went from twice to once a week.

“We’re just getting into our tourist season,” he said. “I’d hate to see people bypass us.”

Commuters who woke up hours earlier and arrived home later also missed Little League and family dinners. In Darrington schools, the teachers had to get there. It was a strain, Superintendent Buck Marsh said. Some nearby opened their homes.

Most of Darrington’s 400 students were not affected, Marsh said. However, teachers worked with at least two students who didn’t have detour transportation.

Marsh’s wife works in Arlington and was taking the long way, too.

“It’s not lost on me the sacrifices people are making,” he said.

The 2014 disaster taught everyone about contingency plans.

Most of the volunteers at the fire department have jobs out of town, Chief Denny Fenstermaker said. If they stayed Down Below, fewer were available here, especially without crews from Oso and Arlington.

Though emergency responders were allowed to travel Highway 530 during the closure, Darrington firefighters didn’t pursue that option. “It’s either safe or it’s not safe,” Fenstermaker said.

Stepping up, again

Darrington prides itself on self-reliance. Still, the closure brought back memories of 2014. Some on social media said they’d rather take their chances on the highway. Others who lost loved ones, including those who worked in the recovery efforts, know the toll it takes to dig back out of a disaster.

“We all remember what it was like the first time this happened,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said. “It’s really tough to do this and be reminded. … We’re driving around, and the whole idea that there could be another slide, the anguish that surrounds that is overwhelming.”

People wasted no time in offering places to stay and organizing carpools.

Agencies that partner with North Counties Family Services extended some financial support, director Wyonne Perrault said. The nonprofit provided gas vouchers, child care and temporary housing on a limited basis. Counseling remains available.

Before the highway reopened, Perrault was seeking state permission to extend the hours of the childcare center. A woman had volunteered for the extra shifts.

Changes in town since 2014 made some of the disruption easier. As part of a multi-year economic revitalization project, Darrington added internet hotspots and a shared office space for working remotely.

It’s a great resource, but it doesn’t mean much for those whose jobs don’t involve keyboards.

A threat to normal

While neighbors rallied together, they worried about a new normal: What if the highway closes every time there’s a wet winter or a shifting hillside? An average March in Darrington sees 7.26 inches of rain. March 2014 had 19.3 inches. This March: 21.9, the most in nearly a century of weather records.

Homebuyers and employers are unlikely to settle in Darrington if closures become frequent, Rankin said. Nonprofits, too, might have to consider the detour in their budgets.

“If this is a recurrence, Darrington becomes less appealing,” he said. “Am I going to move my business to Darrington if my costs might double any March day or April day?”

For customers at the Burger Barn on the north end of town, the consensus was if you have the choice, you put off any errands that require the long haul through Skagit County. It was six hours to Seattle and back. One woman noted that in covering the distance of the detour round-trip, you might as well drive to Idaho.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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