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Originally published December 16, 2009 at 10:50 AM | Page modified January 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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20 miles of I-5 closed in Lewis County; possible closure near Fife

Heavy rains and unseasonably warm temperatures are melting mountain snow, and causing mudslides and river flooding.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Video | Snoqualmie, Tolt Rivers flood

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Twenty miles of Interstate 5 in Lewis County were closed Wednesday evening and the state expected to close another stretch of the freeway north of the Puyallup River Bridge near Fife. The city of Tacoma declared a state of civil emergency because of flooding risks to the city's wastewater treatment plant and possible public health risks.

Authorities asked more than 40,000 Pierce County residents to head for higher ground as the swollen rivers continued to rise.

Some 26,000 people in the Orting Valley — including the entire city of Orting — were asked to evacuate. Voluntary evacuation notices also were issued for parts of Puyallup and Fife.

Tacoma's Emergency Operations Center opened at 6 p.m. and was to remain open for the duration of the emergency. The city's surface water crews were working a 24-hour schedule in an attempt to keep the more than 22,000 public storm drains clean in Tacoma. Drains near street corners and in low areas of streets and parking lots were the main concern.

Along the Puyallup River, a levee was breached early in the evening, spurring the evacuation of more than 4,600 homes in the Fife area and raised the spectre of the state shutting down I-5.

"Closing a major freeway in such a highly-populated, urban area is not something we take lightly," said Assistant Chief Les Young of the Washington State Patrol's Field Operations Bureau in a news release. "Our priority is to close the freeway early enough that we don't put anyone in harm's way."

The late winter storm caused more than 60 road closures since early Wednesday morning, state officials said. Heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures also "created significant avalanche concerns in the state's three main mountain passes, as well as significant flooding concerns for most Western Washington rivers," according to a department of transportation news release.

In the Fife area, water was pouring over the levee along North Levee Road, parallel to highway 167, said Sheri Badger, the Pierce County Emergency Management spokeswoman. Sandbags were having little effect.

The water was spilling over the levee for three miles along North Levee Road between Interstate 5 and River Road area. Badger said they've abandoned attempts to sandbag the levee area or stop the water. Their focus is evacuations and saving lives, she added.

Surprise Lake Middle School in Milton was serving as an evacuation center.

Parts of Puyallup and Sumner along the river were evacuated. More than 20 roads in King County were closed because of "river flooding, mudslides or washouts," according to the county.

Additional closures should be expected through Thursday as higher flows move through the Snoqualmie River system. Currently only the Woodinville-Duvall Road is open to motorists heading to Carnation and Duvall. However, it's likely that road will also be closed as flooding in the lower valley worsens, officials said.

The rain and warmer weather also are to blame for a massive slide at the Hyak ski area at Snoqualmie Pass.

In Skagit County, a mudslide crushed a house at Concrete, temporarily trapping a woman inside.

However, Seattle is in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, which has been reducing the amount of rainfall in the immediate area. While the Seattle area has so far been spared the drenching that's soaked the rest of the Interstate 5 corridor, the shadow is expected to shift just in time for the evening commute.

"The rain will be picking up and we'll be getting some hefty rainfall totals," said Andy Haner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. "People just need to put on their patience before they hit the road for the evening commute."

According to the state Department of Transportation (DOT), large rivers in Lewis County along I-5 were continuing to rise. When I-5 closes in this area, the only detours are on either I-84 or SR 14 to US 97 or US 395, according to the state. There are two separate areas of I-84 that were reduced to a single lane in each direction.

Mountain passes slammed

At the Summit East ski area at Hyak on Snoqualmie Pass, a massive slide brought down a cascade of dirt, snow and trees that took out power lines and at least one chair lift and slammed debris into houses and cottages below.

It wasn't immediately known whether anyone was missing in the slide or if there had been any injuries.

The landslide occurred just before noon, as state transportation workers were busy clearing snow and debris from the pass, which has been closed all day because of the high avalanche danger.

"It happened right outside our front door," Don Whitehouse, a regional administrator with the DOT, said from inside the department's Hyak maintenance facility, on the east side of the summit. "It took out a chair lift, and one home may have been knocked off its foundation."

He estimated the slide was at least 400 to 500 feet across.

"There was snow, but it's mostly dirt that slid down the ski slope," Whitehouse said. "We're not in imminent danger here, but it does look like a few houses were involved."

The roads through all three major passes — Snoqualmie, Stevens and White — were closed this morning due to avalanches and standing water on the road, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The state said Snoqualmie Pass will remain closed through the day until conditions improve.

Meagan McFadden, a DOT spokeswoman, said maintenance employees are being evacuated between mile posts 47 and 53 — from Denny Creek to about a mile west of the summit — as a safety precaution.

"It's really unstable," she said of conditions at the pass, where heavy rain continues to fall.

"Natural avalanches are occurring all over the pass," she said. With the rain, the soil is "becoming more saturated" and more prone to sliding.

From intense snow to intense rain

Water over the road is also to blame for closing Highway 410 in both directions, from Greenwater to Enumclaw.

Between midnight and about 10:20 a.m. today, 0.42 inches of rain was recorded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, according to the Weather Service.

From midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, 1.22 inches of rain fell at the airport, tying the 1956 record set for Jan. 6. The record for today's date was set in 1996, with 1.33 inches.

The fast-moving "pineapple express" of warm, moist air riding the jet stream from Hawaii will bring rain through tomorrow, said Haner, of the weather service. Early this morning, the tropical system had already melted 10 inches of snow at Snoqualmie Pass.

"The snow on the ground has gone from 72 inches to 62 inches since about 4 p.m. Tuesday," Haner said.

In the next 24 hours, areas north and south of Seattle could see as much as 3 inches of rain, with even more falling in the Cascade foothills, Haner said.

Severe flooding is expected to continue on the Tolt and Snoqualmie rivers near Carnation and in both the upper and lower Snoqualmie Valley, where many roads already are closed, said Ken Zweig, a program manager with the King County Flood Warning Center.

Some neighborhoods in the Carnation area, including the San Souci neighborhood upstream from Carnation on the Tolt River, are cut off from major roads because of flooding, he said.

This morning, water overflowing from the Tolt lapped up against the foundation of John DelCarlo's home just south of Carnation. With so much snow melting in the mountains, he said it appears this flood may have the potential to be as bad as any he's seen in 30 years here.

"This morning when I got up, I saw a dry field. Then I put the coffee pot on, looked out and it was a wet field," he said.

DelCarlo, who runs a glass company, said his biggest concern now is the flooding that could come tonight. But floodwaters typically spill through a crawl space under his home so DelCarlo is hopeful he won't need to evacuate.

"I'm too old to be doing this," said DelCarlo, 56, as he moved his wood pile to his front porch that for that moment was still several feet above the water level.

In the city of Snoqualmie, officials this morning were recommending immediate evacuation in the river's flood plain.

Temporary shelter was made available at Cascade View Elementary School on Snoqualmie Ridge.

Sandbags and sand have been available for filling at the King Street parking lot in downtown Snoqualmie. Residents are asked to move household items and valuables up off floors and to upper stories, if possible.

Linda Perez, 22, looked out at the brown, flowing water that surrounds the house she has rented for about a year. Friends were helping her put sandbags on the rental property.

"The landlord thinks we may get a foot of water in the house before it stops. We've moved everything we can to the upper level," she said. "I think we'll just go up there and wait it out if we can."

Significant flooding also is possible on the Cedar River — which flows through Maple Valley into Renton and Lake Washington — "something we haven't seen in a while," said Zweig, of the King County flood center.

So far, evacuations have not been ordered in King or Snohomish counties. Even after the rain stops on Friday, the threat of river flooding will remain for at least 12 hours — and up to two days in the Monroe area — before water levels begin to drop, Haner said.

Flooding from heavy rains and melting snow blocked other highways around Washington. They include Highway 9 in Whatcom County, Highway 20 near Hamilton in Skagit County, Highway 165 in Wilkeson in Pierce County, Highway 162 in Orting, Highway 112 near Clallam Bay, Highway 8 in Thurston County and Highway 10 near Ellensburg.

Whatcom County has declared an emergency to help officials deal with flooded roads and mudslides caused by heavy rain.

A spokesman at the county's emergency operation center with Bellingham, city police Lt. Rick Sucee, says small creeks are now rivers and ditches are overflowing.

Lewis County scurrying, "praying"

Chehalis, Newaukum and Skookumchuck rivers in Lewis County were all predicted to crest at or near record levels by Thursday.

"What are we doing?" asked Cyndi Ticknor, the county's maintenance and operations superintendent. "We're praying."

But not waiting for divine assistance. Crews were standing by with sandbags ready to surround the courthouse and jail, which flooded in the 2007 storm that closed I-5.

"It's really a mess for us when I-5 closes down," Ticknor said.

Freeway traffic, including semi-trucks, pours onto local roads, causing congestion that could be even worse if more rivers overflow, she said.

The town of Randle in eastern Lewis County, nestled between Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, is facing the possibility of a Cowlitz River cresting 3 feet above record levels, according to the National Weather Service. Tuesday evening, Fire Chief Jeff Jaques was trying to decide whether to evacuate his own offices.

"The last record flood, we had 8 inches of water in the building," he said.

Randle still had up to a foot of snow on the ground — all of which could be turned to water, if the forecasts prove accurate, Jaques pointed out.

One saving grace is that this Pacific storm is relatively fast-moving, and not likely to park in one place for too long, said University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass. "One area is not going to get hammered for the whole period."

Precipitation across the region will vary widely through Thursday: up to 15 inches at Mount Rainier and other high points; 8-10 inches in foothill areas; 5-6 inches in Olympia; 8 inches in Mason County; and 3 inches from Seattle to Everett.

And there is a bright spot ahead for weather-weary Washingtonians, Mass said. A high-pressure ridge appears to be developing, which is likely to bring dry, warmer weather by the weekend.

Portions of this report were provided by The Associated Press

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com and Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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