Written by Libby Denkmann & Alec Cowan, KUOW.org
On March 8, 2014, a landslide rushing at 60 miles per hour swept over State Route 530 and Oso, Washington. It engulfed more than 40 homes and remains the deadliest landslide in U.S. history.
Eight years later, the region is finding ways to move forward, while also holding on to memory of Oso and those who called it home.
At the memorial site on SR 530, Seth Jefferds wields a brush cutter. He’s cutting back some scotch broom, making sure that the mailbox sculpture designating Steelhead Drive is proudly visible.
“I just come out here to take care of the place, make it look presentable,” Jefferds told Soundside host Libby Denkmann.
Jefferds worked as an Oso firefighter and lived on Steelhead Drive with his wife, Chris, for 18 years. He was on a rafting trip with friends when he heard about the landslide.
“I tried calling Chris and she didn’t answer. I called the house. Nothing,” Jefferds said. “I called on an amateur radio, from a firefighter radio, and I heard them talking on the radio back and forth. I got more and more scared.”
When Jefferds drove closer to the disaster site, he had to climb a nearby trail to survey the area. He lost his wife, his granddaughter Sanoah, his dog, and his home in the landslide. Today, he lives just down the road, regularly tending to the grounds and telling visitors about the tragedy.
“It becomes part of who you are,” Jefferds said. “Sometimes you get in a laugh about things and some days you don’t feel like laughing at all, even eight years later.”
Building the future
Down the road in Darrington, Mayor Dan Rankin is busy. His family has long worked in the regional timber industry, once the lifeblood of Oso and Darrington. But the industry ebbs and flows, especially since the landslide crashed down from an old-growth clearcut above Oso.
Many of the local loggers were the first volunteers on the slide in 2014.
“I don’t think we changed that much,” Rankin said. “We did the jobs that we knew how to do. We worked in the woods all our lives. We knew the terrain, and how to operate in those conditions.”
Each year, Rankin joins the Oso families in ringing a memorial bell for each of those who died in the slide — 43 times in all.
“It’s not as bleak as it was in the beginning. But it’s a scar there. And it’s a scar for all of us.”
Today, Rankin is focused on the economic development of his town. Darrington has the lowest average household income in Snohomish County. But plans for a new development, the Darrington Wood Innovation Center, are hoping to bring back locals who left due to the lack of jobs and local opportunities.
The planned 30 acre campus will house manufacturers, environmental groups, and researchers to promote innovation in wood technology, and will aim to train workers in sustainable timber practices. At the center of those practices is a lamination technique bringing new possibilities for construction in the United States.
“Darrington is a community of doers,” Rankin said.
Listen to the entire podcast on KUOW.org.
ABOUT TOWN OF DARRINGTON
Darrington, a small mountain town in the North Cascades, sits between the Sauk and the North Fork Stillaguamish rivers. Today, the town has about 1,405 residents and serves another 1,200 folks in the surrounding areas. The primary economy is still the timber industry; however, Darrington is also using its unique location near the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and Wilderness to promote recreation as a strong force in the local economy. Learn more at www.townofdarrington.com.
Forterra is an unconventional land trust that works across Washington’s communities and landscapes, from the ranches and shrub-steppe of the Yakima basin, to the estuaries, farms and forests of Washington’s coast, reaching more than 100 counties, cities, towns and rural communities. Working cooperatively with people and nature, Forterra drives land stewardship, management and planning, innovative programs and policies, farming and forestry approaches, community ownership opportunities, and development solutions. Visit www.forterra.org.