Sinkhole in Helena backyard opens up questions

by Michael Mosher on September 8, 2012

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HELENA — The sudden appearance of a sinkhole last Friday in Debbie Butzlaff’s backyard opened up a whole lot of questions for her.

Butzlaff said she turned on a small sprinkler on Aug. 28, to water the lawn behind her two-story rental home at 521 Breckenridge. However, she forgot to ask her tenant, Sandy Sands, to shut it off.

“It wasn’t a heavy watering, just a light sprinkle,” she said on Wednesday, adding that she shut the water off on Aug. 31. “After I shut it off, I came over to move the sprinkler, and there was the hole.”

While the surface opening is only about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide, Sands said that underground it’s closer to a 5-by-6-foot hole and is at least 4 feet deep.

“You can see how it goes back underneath there,” Sands added.

Butzlaff initially didn’t know where to turn, since, as she put it, there’s no listing in the phone book under “sinkholes.”

“So I called the water department, and they said it could have been an old septic system or old outhouse,” Butzlaff said, noting that the house was built in 1903.

“Somebody said it may be a root cellar, but there aren’t any stone walls inside of it.”

She went to the building department to check the historic records, but only found a permit for a new electrical box. She talked to a city engineer, but left only puzzled further by the fact that the hookups to the water and sewer are in her front yard, and the city’s stormwater drain system isn’t anywhere near the sinkhole.

Someone suggested that she call 8-1-1, which is used to locate utility lines before people dig into the ground, especially since a power line is less than 3 feet away.

“I called and explained the hole; the man asked if I was going to be digging, and I said no, there’s already a hole there,” Butzlaff recalled. “So he said he couldn’t do anything for me.”

She also called Northwestern Energy because of the nearby power line. The power company looked at it and said it was fine.

So, on Wednesday, with nothing but a mystery left in her backyard, Butzlaff started filling in the sinkhole with some large rocks.

She’s thinking about looking into whether Helena Sand and Gravel has a sprayer truck they could use to dump some dirt to fill in around the rocks; it’s a tight spot to work in with a fence around the small lot.

Butzlaff is also counting her blessings, working only a few feet away from a swing set.

“I have a 18-month-old grandson that was living here … and the upstairs tenant has a 5-year-old,” Butzlaff said. “I’m glad I found it before someone else fell in. It kind of freaked me out.

“Where in the world did it come from?”

Full article…here

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