Rattlesnake Ridge: The latest updates on January 23, 2018 - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Rattlesnake Ridge: The latest updates on January 23, 2018

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UNION GAP, WA - It's been 'all eyes' on Rattlesnake Ridge in Union Gap for months. The crack is growing and moving about a foot and a half a week; a steady constant for some time.

Experts believe one million cubic yards will eventually fall down Rattlesnake Ridge. That's equivalent to about 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of debris.

A lot of people want to know what the worst case scenario is - that had been that the hillside crashes down onto I-82, of which tens of thousands of cars drive every day...and possibly blocking the Yakima River. But Jeff Emmons with the Yakima Valley Office of Emergency Management says experts are saying that's not only unlikely, but also unrealistic.

The slide is moving slowly, but this is a familiar area for us...and we wanted to know if the Rattlesnake Hills Fire last July had any effect on the slide. We spoke with the Department of Natural Resources today to find out.

The Rattlesnake Hills Fire sparked in the middle of the night back in July 2017 and quickly spread across the northern and southern sides of the hill. When it was finally put out, nearly 3,000 acres were destroyed.

But just three months after that fire was when the first reports started coming out about the ground beginning to crack. 

So - did the wildfire contribute to it?

"We don't think it contributed to any instability," said Joe Smillie with Natural Resources. "We do think it was helpful in identifying it. Having the vegetation burned off the hillside allowed that pilot to spot it."

The hillside where the fire happened was left pitch black, which made it a whole lot easier for the pilot to see the crack back in October. Officials have been monitoring ever since.

The team of people working to prepare and plan for the Rattlesnake Ridge slide are closely watching every movement up there. As the slide moves, there are GPS monitors and seismographs that are collecting data so researchers are able to track exactly how fast and where the ground is going.

Emergency Management says they are still having problems with people trespassing. That is dangerous, and it can disturb those monitors with people walking over the sensors. 

Officials continue to urge the general public to stay away from the area. In a briefing earlier today, Emergency Management emphasized the public to avoid the area.

As officials and scientists continue investigating Rattlesnake Ridge, 

"We've seen a lot of the videos that have been posted up on YouTube, online and Facebook of people going out there and videoing themselves," Emmons said. "We have sent those to the Yakima Sheriff's Office to follow up as appropriate."

Emmons assures that the landslide is not safe for the general public, and that certain safety measures are set to keep employees away from any danger.

"From time to time you may see our workers on the landslide," he explained. "We have put into place safety measures, that our workers, workers from other state agencies and the geologist check in with our office."

Emergency Management keeps a close record of any workers in the area in case of an emergency.

The Benton County Fire Department has a plan set in place for when the ridge does decide to fall. This is an all-hands-on-deck safety plan - there are multiple agencies involved in monitoring the ground movement and preparing for the landslide.

Currently, the department is working on a rotational schedule. This means a group of team members go up each Tuesday.

Currently, Benton County Fire District #1 has put together four teams of first responders, which take turns monitoring the slide on a weekly basis.

Today we spoke with Lonnie Click, the Benton County Fire District #1 chief, and he tells us his crews are well prepared.

"If the hill does slide off, then the authority of jurisdiction which is Yakima Fire County 5 and Yakima Emergency Management, they will activate the system which will call us to go over there and help manage the incident at that point," said Chief Click.

Many of the Benton County firefighters have already responded to incidents like taking care of hazardous materials, hurricanes, and landslides...so when it comes to hazardous incidents like these, the team is more than prepared.

Today, the fire chief also told us all agencies plan to meet this Friday to create an in-depth action plan.

We've also learned this wet and cold weather isn't as much of an issue as first thought...which is good news, because it's been raining all afternoon in Union Gap.

We asked the Department of Natural Resources specifically about the weather's impact today. As we saw just two weeks ago in Montecito, California, heavy rain caused devastating landslides that have killed at least 20 people. And usually in these types of disasters, the weather is one of the major contributing factors. But according to DNR geologists, that's not the case when it comes to the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide.

"In this one there is a very thin layer of sediment in between the layers of rock that are sliding right now," said Joe Smillie with Natural Resources. "So it may loosen it a little bit but not significantly. Gravity is the main culprit here."

A few weeks ago, Emergency Management said the window for when the landslide could happen between now and March. But because the land movement has stopped accelerating, officials have removed the window completely.

And of course, safety has been a top priority. The briefing focused heavily on that today, and will continue to do so for the public and the workers.

The agencies working here have check in, check out systems, and the buddy system.

As workers from multiple departments continue to work up on the ridge, safety precautions are taken by officials. We talked with the Department of Transportation to find out how their workers are being kept safe on the site.

The Rattlesnake Ridge landslide has workers and scientists working on the site nonstop. The crack is increasing at a rate of about a foot and a half every week. Scientists are still trying to understand and gather more information about the landslide. With such an unpredictable work environment, officials from several departments must take precautionary measures to ensure the safety of anybody on the area.

"We do have crews that are prepared for this kind of thing," said Meagan Lott with the Department of Transportation. "We also have a 24-hour monitoring. So we have 1 person work a 12-hour shift and another working another 12-hour shift to keep a view of the landslide area to see if they see any rock or movement coming down."

The Department of Transportation does have a safety protocol in case of an emergency. Workers must go up to the site in pairs, and they must report their location to the Traffic Management Center. Then they must report back once they're done with their activity on the field.

Safety is the number one priority for both workers and the general public. I-82 is still safe to travel. In an event of there being more movement, the road would close from Union Gap all the way to Granger.

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