A mudslide that gushed through a 24-unit condominium at Schweitzer Mountain near Sandpoint on Wednesday might have damaged the structure beyond repair.
Two nearby condo complexes have been ordered closed over concerns that more slides could occur. The Snowdrift and Creekside condominiums were not damaged by the slide, but a crack on the hillside above the units and continued torrents of snowmelt from the warm weather indicate the earth might not be done moving, said Spencer Newton, chief of the Schweitzer Fire District.
“It’s too dangerous,” Newton said, explaining the decision to close additional units and to bar owners of the damaged condos from returning. “Anything can slide right now. The building could give way.”
The slide sent “tens of thousands of cubic yards” of mud, logs, ice and debris through the ground-floor garage of the Red Cricket Condominium building. No one was in the building when the slide hit, toppling a tall concrete wall and filling some of the garage stalls to the ceiling with mud.
“It’s definitely not structurally sound,” Newton said. “I don’t know what’s holding it up. I’m not going in there to find out. I’m amazed it’s still standing.”
Along with determining the structural stability of the damaged building, experts are also beginning to investigate what caused the slide.
Newton said the mud “more than likely stems from the excavation” above the building. There were no other mudslides reported on the mountain, he added. Several witnesses gave concurring reports to The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday evening after the slide occurred.
The owner of the excavated property, Gary Barnes, was beginning the process of building a 10-unit condominium complex on the hillside. Although Barnes had obtained Bonner County permits required for the work, there is no record of him obtaining the free federal stormwater permit necessary for building on sites one acre or larger, said June Bergquist with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
The permit can be obtained online and requires developers to implement protections aimed at preventing runoff from construction sites. Bergquist visited the site Thursday to collect water samples from nearby Schweitzer Creek to investigate if the slide could pose a threat to aquatic life.
Barnes could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Rich Campbell, of Spokane, cautioned against rushing to judgment. A little over a month ago, Schweitzer Mountain was covered by around 12 feet of snow. The heat wave has turned the snowpack into massive amounts of water, and slides have been reported recently in the North Cascades in places undisturbed by development, Campbell said.
“This was caused by the warm weather and extreme temperatures,” Campbell said. “It’s an act of God. This is something that sometimes happens. It’s unfortunate.”
Trees had also been removed on property above Barnes’ construction site, Campbell said. Trees not only anchor soil, but they provide shade to slow snowmelt. Campbell suggested these deforested properties might have contributed to the slide.
“The water did not originate on (the Barnes) property,” Campbell said.
Wherever the water came from, it picked up and carried dirt belonging to Barnes. Cambell admitted that “a portion” of the mudslide contained earth dug from his client’s land.
The Red Cricket Condominium Association has also retained a lawyer, who visited the site Thursday. Association President Richard Smith, of Spokane, said the building was insured, but not for mudslides.
“Everybody is concerned,” said Smith, who has owned his condominium since the building was built in 1964. “It’s withstood everything since then, but we’ve never had a slide before.”
Smith laughed when he heard the incident was being called an act of God by the developer’s lawyer. “I don’t know what God has against all 24 of us,” he said.
Newton, the local fire chief, said the timing of the slide is about the only good news from the incident. This weekend, Schweitzer’s condos will be packed with people attending Sandpoint’s Lost in the 50s music and classic car celebration, which is among the biggest festivals of the year for the resort community.
“We could very possibly be pulling body bags out of there right now,” Newton said.