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Oso Report Assigns No Blame, Calls For Better Public Safety

 A condemned house on the edge of the Ledgewood Beach landslide on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound.
John Ryan / KUOW
A condemned house on the edge of the Ledgewood Beach landslide on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound.

A new report from the SR 530 Landslide Commission makes 17 recommendations for improving public safety in a state that is dotted with landslide-prone slopes. Recommendations range from mapping Washington state's most dangerous ground in detail to improving emergency response.

The independent commission set up in response to the deadly March 22 Oso landslide says more money is needed to prepare for slides statewide.

The report does not assess blame for the deaths in the Oso slide.

When Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick created the commission in July, they made clear it would not hold anyone accountable for the 43 deaths in Oso. Inslee said that lawsuits by victims and their survivors could handle that task.

Darrington, Washington, IGA grocery store owner Kevin Ashe criticized the decision to punt on the question of blame.

"I think we're all taught this as kids: When you make a mistake, own up to it," Ashe said in July. "I think people are forgiving and move on. It's only when you make a mistake and it's kind of pushed under the rug, that people tend to start to ask questions."

Ashe also complained that none of the 12 landslide commissioners came from the communities most affected by the Oso slide. His son-in-law was one of many loggers and contractors from Darrington who used their personal equipment and ingenuity to pull victims and bodies from the mud.

The commission's new report, out Monday, praises the local loggers' "innovation, adaptation, and sheer willpower."

Over the course of five months, the landslide commissioners consulted with Ashe and other locals. By the time they were putting the final touches on the report in early December, Kevin Ashe had warmed up to their work.

"On behalf of myself and the community of Darrington, we thank you from the bottoms of our heart," Ashe told the commission at a Dec. 2 meeting in Everett.

Other recommendations from the commission include:

The day after the Oso landslide, the Washington State Patrol declined the Oso fire chief's request to mobilize firefighters from elsewhere in the state because the disaster was a landslide, not a fire.

Only 13 percent of Washington has been mapped at a scale that allows identification of landslide hazards, and the mapping information is generally difficult for non-experts to use. The commission is urging a statewide mapping effort: To find where the riskiest ground lies, using high-resolution Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) technology and to get that information into the hands of people who can use it.

"Ensure that landslide hazard and risk mapping occur in the highest priority areas first, including transportation corridors, such as the Everett-Seattle rail line and the trans-Cascades highways, residential areas, urban growth areas, emergency evacuation routes, and forest lands where the State has regulatory authority over forest practices."

The report calls for mapping to encompass not just landslide slopes but their "runout zones" — the areas where mud is deposited. The Oso landslide pushed across a river, moving up to 3,000 feet away from the slippery slope where it began.

This was first reported for KUOW.org

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John Ryan