I was about 20 miles south of Oso, Wash., on Saturday, March 22, when a huge mudslide buried most of that small town, killing more than 40 people and ruining the lives of many more. Why do people build houses in such dangerous places? I asked myself.
As The Seattle Times opined, “The Oso landslide should rouse state and local officials to take a close look at laws and rules supposedly designed to ensure that people aren’t living or working downslope from such disasters.” The Times went on to note that “Snohomish County ... continued to permit development on Steelhead Drive ... even after scientists warned of the danger posed by the unstable hillside across from the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River,” which runs through the Oso area.
My daughter and her family live in south Snohomish County, and I’d like to think that the county’s land-use rules and regulations would protect them from natural disasters like the Oso mudslide, but now I’m not so sure. Fortunately, however, they don’t live anywhere near the unstable hillsides that abound in the Greater Seattle area. When I was a kid in West Seattle, an expensive home slid off its foundation right across the street from where we were living at the time. Mudslides are a constant threat in that rainy part of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and March was the rainiest month in Seattle history.
Although the Oso mudslide caught almost everyone off-guard, some warning signs were missed. According to the Times, “The hill that collapsed had a long history of slides, including ones in 1949, 1951, 1967, 1988 and 2006.” Moreover, a 2010 report commissioned by the county concluded that the hillsides along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish just outside of Oso were among the most dangerous mudslide areas in the county. And finally, even though the state issued logging restrictions for the area in 1997, officials used an outdated 1988 map to allow logging above the hillside that collapsed.
In other words, this was a tragedy that could have been prevented if logging had actually been restricted in that area and if the county had denied building permits for new homes in the area directly below that unstable hillside. I don’t want to shock anyone, but we know that home builders and logging companies contribute to political campaigns and politicians have been known to take good care of major campaign contributors.
That might explain how homes continue to be built in dangerous areas around Carson City. We remember that nearly 20 homes were lost in the 2004 Waterfall Fire that ravaged tinder-dry pine forests on hillsides on the west side of town. Homes in Ash Canyon and Lakeview were jeopardized by that fire and the danger zone extended all the way south to Highway 50. And just imagine what would have happened if that fire had jumped the highway to burn in the Clear Creek area, where large homes have been built on heavily forested lots.
Who issued the building permits for those homes, and why? Didn’t the Envision Carson City plan of the mid-1990s contemplate natural hillsides without homes and commercial buildings? Apparently, local land use restrictions have changed since then. Too bad about that.
Returning to the Oso mudslide, the Seattle Times called for tougher development rules in landslide areas, and a Times columnist criticized Snohomish County officials for saying that the deadly mudslide “came out of nowhere.” In that spirit, our local officials should take another look at hillside development in and around Carson City. Better safe than sorry.
Political columnist Guy W. Farmer grew up in Seattle before moving to Carson City in 1962.