By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Work crews began removing snow on Friday from an Alaska highway hit by avalanches last week that blocked the only road leading to the port city of Valdez, officials said.
With the road cut off, ferry and plane routes have been added for people needing to leave the city of over 4,000 residents. Food and other goods are arriving by barge.
Aside from providing road access to the town, the highway is used to transport fuel, goods and oil production equipment from Valdez to the state's interior region, which includes Fairbanks, the state's second largest city.
All that traffic is blocked by snow slides that began last week and have left a six-mile stretch of the Richardson Highway still blanketed with columns of snow, officials said.
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Utilities spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said it was still too soon to predict when the entire stretch would reopen.
"The initial estimate is anywhere from three to four days, but that's just for clearing snow," Woodrow said. "There still might need to be work done on the roads, but we won't know until we can test the road for stability."
For residents of Valdez, nestled in the Chugach Mountains and located nearly 120 miles west of Anchorage, word that crews will be working around the clock to clear final sections of snow and ice - about 1,000 cubic yards - was welcome.
"We're just glad to be moving forward on it, that's a step in the right direction," said city spokeswoman Sheri Pierce. "I know for people in the Lower 48, it's hard to imagine not having road service, but for many Alaska communities, this is nothing new."
State Department of Transportation maintenance engineer Mike Coffey said officials were moving cautiously to remove the snow, mindful after losing two avalanche crew workers in the past 40 years.
The blocked highway is the state's oldest, dating to 1898, and is one of the state's two major north-south arteries with a deepwater port terminus.
Heavy equipment used for the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline and to service North Slope oil production often starts on this route before connecting to other highways leading to the oil fields. Pipeline operator Alyeska said the avalanche has not disrupted operations because the pipelines in the avalanche areas are under ground.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay)