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Other Views: Wake-up call

With at least 16 dead and the potential for many more casualties from a massive landslide in Oso in northwest Washington, all rural residents on the wet side of the Pacific Northwest will be casting wary eyes toward our own steep and unstable hillsides.

In a sense, landslides are the flip side of wildlife risks that worsen as population expands into previously unsettled areas. Fire danger is associated with placing residential areas within forests, without hydrants or adequate buffers between dwellings and trees. Landslide danger comes from homes in proximity to slopes that may never have been very stable, and are less so following heavy rains and surface disturbances such as logging or road building.

Astoria is of course infamous for its many interspersed slippery slopes, with slides thus far impacting property values rather than taking lives. But there are numerous other serious examples of unstable terrain tearing across highways and other structures in the Lower Columbia region. The most notorious in recent years was the massive December 2007 disaster that covered U.S. Highway 30, resulting in evacuations and an expensive, months-long reconstruction.

Watching news reports about the Oso slide, we have been lucky. Covering a square mile with tangled debris and obstructing a river, this event obliterated a small concentration of country homes. This was a "town" in the much the same sense as many in our own area, where a lot of country roads lead to far-flung hamlets of anywhere from five to 25 houses. Also as in Oso, many of these neighborhoods cluster along valley bottoms to take advantage of water views and access, while industrial forestry remains a vital part of our economy on surrounding steep hillsides.

The Pacific Northwest will get nothing but more crowded, as the U.S. population increases and people relocate from hotter, drought states. The temptation will be to develop in more remote and less appropriate forested areas. Pragmatically, there may not be much that can be done to stop this.

But we should look at our own situations, taking note of factors such as rivers eroding the footings of hillsides like the one that gave way in Oso. More intense rainfall events and a switch from snowpack to more rain are predicted to become the norm. It is time to more carefully take slope stability into account when considering logging permits or giving the go-ahead to other types of development.

As our region accommodates denser mixes of land uses, we must figure out how best to live side by side, taking risks into account and fairly allocating the costs. This will sometimes mean saying no to developments below undependable hillsides, or no to certain land modifications above dwellings. But better this than what happened in Snohomish County.