Kent firefighters join search and rescue crews at Oso slide

Seen from a high vantage point on a powerline access road, it’s difficult to grasp the enormity of the Oso mudslide and the damage it caused.  - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Seen from a high vantage point on a powerline access road, it’s difficult to grasp the enormity of the Oso mudslide and the damage it caused.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

The drive through the Oso mudslide zone is like something out of a dream.

Twisted hulks of cars protrude from piles of roots and silt and mud. The ever present roar of excavator engines fills the vale and the acrid smell of rotted wood and marshland fills the nostrils.

Standing at the foot of the slide, the enormity is too large to comprehend. Looking at it from a high vantage point diminishes the scope. There’s no real way for a person to put it in perspective.

“A camera can never do justice to what your eyes see,” says Bob Vanderyacht, a public affairs officer with the Bellingham Police Department.

Kyle Ohashi, the Kent Fire Department public information officer, also was assigned to the FEMA operation. He said that the devastation can be described but really can’t be comprehended until it’s seen in person.

“You see the homes that are there and the small neighborhoods and you realize those are the exact same kinds of neighborhoods that got wiped out,” he said.

The slide, which moved at 60 miles per hour, dumped almost 730 acres of land onto the valley floor. So far, 39 victims have been recovered. As for the remaining missing four, it’s up to task forces like the Washington State Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team.

Firefighters from throughout the state comprise the 80-member team, eight of whom are from Kent’s own fire district.

Ohashi describes the operation as “constantly evolving.”

Three weeks after the slide, what started as a search and rescue has slowed to a recovery effort, with the bulk of the work going into diverting the Stillaguamish River.

The river flowed into the east end of the slide area, and has to be dredged to complete the excavation and recovery efforts. That’s where the USAR team comes in.

Firefighters from Kent on the task force are helping to construct a makeshift berm along the river. After the berm is finished, crews will be able to dredge the final sections of the slide area.

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