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Originally published | Page modified April 4, 2009 at 6:27 PM

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Beaver-built dam bursts on Whidbey Island, 8 homes struck by flood

A breached dam built by a family of beavers sent a 10-foot cascade of water, trees and debris crashing through Clinton, Whidbey Island, on Friday morning, damaging eight homes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Video | Whidbey Island flooding

Flickr slideshow compiled by Southwhidbeyrecord

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WHIDBEY ISLAND — A breached dam built by a family of beavers sent a 10-foot cascade of water, trees and debris crashing through a little beachfront community here Friday morning.

Eight homes in Clinton were hit, one left tilting after tons of water pushed it from its foundation.

Up the hill, the rushing water left a crater 60 feet wide and 40 feet deep where a blocked culvert caused the road to give way.

There were no injuries, but, oh, the memories of a close call.

"It was like a boiling caldron," said Nancy Boyle, who lives in one of the waterfront homes along Humphrey Road in the south end of the island.

She jumped in her car with her two dogs and gunned it, mud and debris swirling around them.

When safe, about 50 feet up the hillside, Boyle stopped to watch.

"I saw logs, pieces of buildings," she said. In the space between her home and an adjoining cabin, "I saw this large, red cooler come shooting down."

Friday afternoon, residents were trying to quantify the damage — mud in the ground-level floors — and, more important, determining whether their septic systems had been hurt.

Repairing the latter likely would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

On a regular basis, it seems, nature reminds Pacific Northwesterners of its power; in this case, that of a family of beavers, likely six of them, a mom, a dad and four youngsters

That's the size of the typical beaver family, said Robert Naiman, a professor at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, who has studied the rodents.

He said a family can build a dam 20 feet across, using sticks of willow, poplar, alder and, sometimes, rocks and mud.

"It depends on how much is available to them," said Naiman. "In Canada and Tierra del Fuego (in Argentina), I've seen dams half a mile across."

He said beavers, native to the Northwest, build dams to find safety from predators such as wolves and mountain lions and to create a good habitat for themselves.

They build homes in the middle of a pond, and they store the tasty wood sticks just outside.

In turn, said Naiman, the ponds, which are full of nutrients, are great places for coho salmon to grow up in.

When beaver dams breach, it's usually because of structural failure at the bottom.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said residents of the Glendale neighborhood were warned in person around 2 a.m. Friday that the dam was breached and that they should evacuate, although it was not mandatory.

Boyle said she had quickly left her home and slept in her car with her dogs. But she returned to her house a few hours later and took a shower.

Then she saw the lights flicker.

Within a couple of minutes, the cascade of water arrived.

Brown said the water and its debris blocked up a culvert.

Mikah Janda, whose home is near the culvert, said water rose "at least 30 feet" where a couple of days earlier there had been a creek one could jump across. Then the road gave way.

By Friday evening, crews had cleaned up a good portion of the mud.

What was left was the memory of one dramatic morning.

"All of a sudden I heard a horrible boom, like a sonic boom," remembered Joan Handy, who lives just up from the beach and walked down the driveway to watch. She scrambled back up to safety. "There were trees and water everywhere. Oh, it was moving fast."

As for the industrious beavers? They are a fact of life in this country.

For professor Naiman, it was nothing unusual: "For people who haven't been around beavers, it's quite a surprise to them. I get a call like this once or twice a year."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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