More than 100 people stranded by torrential rainfall and rockfall – which cut off a huge section of the only road leading in and out of Denali National Park – were airlifted to safety Thursday evening.
Denali National Park spokesperson Kris Fister said several aircraft flew more than 100 Denali Backcountry Lodge employees and guests away from Kantishna. Buses staged at the Wonder Lake Ranger Station then took people back to the park entrance.
Nearby National Park Service employees were also evacuated, along with four climbers who had traversed Mount McKinley but were out of food and unable to cross the flood-swollen McKinley River.
Since 4:30 a.m. Thursday, the park road beyond Wonder Lake was closed by the National Park Service: fast-moving water spilled over from Eureka and Friday creeks, sticking thick mud and scattering large rocks across the roadway.
Hours later, there was a large rockfall a couple miles past Eielson Visitor Center – one of the main stops for the park’s heavily-trafficked bus service – and the road beyond there has been closed since 8:45 a.m.
While the area is prone to flooding, a longtime Denali worker said this is worse than usual.
“I’ve never seen this happen before,” said Marie Monroe, general manager of Kantishna Roadhouse, less than a mile from Eugene Creek. Neither has Fister: “There’s never been anything to this degree that I can remember,” she said.
The roadhouse ended up on the right side of the creek with access in and out, but employees and guests of nearby Denali Backcountry Lodge and Kantishna Air Taxi were also stuck.
In addition to the lodge guests, who were initially bused to another lodge on higher ground, Fister said about 15 National Park Service employees were stranded.
“They’re not just stuck out there -- they have food and shelter,” Fister said.
Evacuation efforts were initially complicated by flooding that prevented fixed-wing aircraft from using Kantishna Airstrip.
Other lodges on higher ground were not evacuated during the airlift flights. Much work remains for Alaska Department of Transportation crews, which will clear Eureka and Friday creeks in a process estimated to take several days.
“If the rain stops and the weather changes, there’ll still be a lot of cleanup,” Monroe said.
Rainfall in the area stopped by Thursday afternoon, and the forecast calls for clearer skies over the weekend.
Channel 2's Jeff Bridges and Chris Klint contributed to this story