Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Storm, avalanches wallop Blaine County

Snow slides dam Big Wood River, hit Ketchum houses


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

A large avalanche in Ketchum?s Warm Springs neighborhood swept over the home of Chuck and Nancy Ferries along Huffman Drive Monday morning. The slide marks the second time in less than a month that the couple?s home was partially buried by a large avalanche. The Ferries were not home when the second slide swept over their home this week. Photo by Willy Cook

While they still have their fingers crossed because of the widespread avalanche danger that exists across the region, local avalanche forecasters were able to breathe a partial sigh of relief on Tuesday.

Despite a very active round of avalanches that began cascading down hillsides throughout the Wood River Valley before daybreak Monday and continued well into the day, no one was hit, buried or otherwise physically harmed by the slides that became too numerous to count.

"As far as we know, no one has been injured," said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, based in Ketchum.

Just about everywhere one looked in the valley on Monday was evidence of avalanches, both very large and quite small.

Describing such volatile avalanche cycles as being fairly "infrequent," Abromeit said the dangerous situation was created by two different storm systems that arrived in the region beginning midday Sunday. He said the storms originated separately, one from out of the southwest and the other from the northwest.

"They sort of converged over the western U.S.," he said.

In all, about 20 inches of snow fell in the mountains and down in the valley as far south as Hailey between Sunday and Monday morning.

First to feel the impact of the steady stream of avalanches were areas in and around the Ketchum area. Just after daybreak, road crews were hard at work clearing the tumbled remains of a large number of slides that swept over state Highway 75 north of Ketchum in the Lake Creek area and near the turnoff for the Hulen Meadows neighborhood.

The slide debris, which included large chunks of snow mixed with branches and other woody material, could be seen on both sides of the highway by drivers as they passed through a narrow pathway cut out by the road crews.

Elsewhere, Ketchum emergency personnel and road crews had their hands full responding to a number of slides that continued to tear off the open, south-facing hillsides below the Warm Springs Ridge throughout the day Monday. Several of the slides slammed into homes along Sage Road and Huffman and Hillside drives in Ketchum's Warm Springs neighborhood.

One of the homes most impacted by the slides, a large multi-story house owned by Chuck and Nancy Ferries along Huffman Drive, had also been hit by another avalanche earlier this month. Like the previous one, Monday's slide mostly hit the west side of the Ferries' home and overran a small detached garage nearby.

After the first slide in early January, Nancy Ferries was thanking her solidly built house and its sturdy avalanche wall on the uphill side of the home for the safe outcome.

Not even a crack has appeared on the walls inside the house, Ferries said. She said a subsequent inspection by a building inspector revealed zero damage.

"It was totally fine," she said.

Not so lucky was their detached garage nearby, which did sustain some amount of damage, Nancy said the day after the first avalanche hit.

This week, the Ferries were reportedly not at home when the slide hit their home for a second time. There has been no word as to what if any damage the large avalanche inflicted to the home or the already damaged garage, although by comparing photographs from both events it appears that the second slide was larger and covered more of the buildings.

Fearing that more avalanches might occur in the Warm Springs area, Ketchum city officials decided to evacuate all homes along Sage Road and Huffman and Hillside drives. At roughly the same time, Ketchum firefighters carrying avalanche probes, backcountry snow shovels and wearing avalanche safety beacons began going house-to-house in the area of Sage Road and Huffman and Hillside drives to make sure no one was caught in any of the four homes reportedly hit by avalanches.

Just after noon on Monday, Ketchum Public Information Officer Kim Rogers said police and fire personnel were notifying residents on those streets of the evacuation order. She said city fire and police departments also restricted Warm Springs Road to local traffic only from the bridge west. By Tuesday around 3 p.m., the restrictions were still in place.

And while the city had lifted the evacuation order for homes in the three at-risk streets, Ketchum officials were advising residents there to seek other accomodations until the danger subsides.

"If you choose to stay home, please stay inside. Do not walk your pets (or) snow blow your property. Be smart, stay safe," stated a news release from Ketchum City Hall.

Also heavily impacted by avalanches in the northern Wood River Valley were homes in the Eagle Creek drainage, a rural area more than five miles north of Ketchum in the lower Boulder Mountains. Around 2 p.m. Monday, emergency crews from Ketchum and Blaine County were called to the area after receiving mixed reports of slides hitting homes.

Wendel Boe, who lives up Eagle Creek with her husband, Erik, and their 4-year-old daughter, Crosby, said two avalanches hit her home Tuesday. She said the first slide hit before daybreak, while the second one hit while Crosby was watching.

"She said, 'What's that?'" Wendel recalled later that day.

Fortunately, no one was hurt by the second avalanche, though it did slam as much as 10 feet of snow against the north side of the family's home.

The Ketchum area and points to the west and north weren't the only parts of the valley impacted by the active round of avalanches. Down south, the Hailey area witnessed its share of avalanche problems Monday.

First to impact the Hailey area were three separate avalanches that broke off of Della Mountain, the prominent peak just west of town on the opposite side of the Big Wood River. The largest of these slides slid all the way across the river, damming it up and sending the river water onto portions of Cedar Street and most of War Eagle Drive.

Around 10 a.m. Monday, Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said up to 18 inches of water was backed up on War Eagle Drive and in Heagle Park.

Gunter said city crews cut a path through the slide to try to allow the waters to divert back into the river. By Tuesday morning, the river waters had finally receded from the streets, Hailey City Clerk Heather Dawson said.

"They are clear and quite nice," she said.

Dawson said city crews have placed signs both at the park and on nearby recreation trails beneath Della Mountain to prohibit pedestrians from using the still avalanche-prone area. She said icy areas adjacent to the river where the flooded waters froze before finding their way back into the river channel also remain particularly dangerous.

Abromeit said that on the east side of Hailey around 2 p.m. Monday, a moderate-sized avalanche slid on the hillside adjacent to the new Woodside Elementary School. Like the rest of Blaine County and private schools in the valley, Woodside Elementary was closed Monday in the aftermath of the dangerous storm.

Abromeit said he saw evidence in the form of footprints on the hillsides above the school supporting earlier reports that children were climbing on potentially dangerous slopes. He said activities like that are hazardous.

"Avalanches large enough to completely bury a child or an adult can occur on even seemingly short, innocent-appearing slopes," he said. "If the slope is steep enough to have fun sledding on, it is probably steep enough to avalanche."

Abromeit urged parents to keep their kids well away from steep slopes such as those in Woodside, Warm Springs, Quigley and Slaughterhouse canyons and elsewhere throughout the county.

The storm also led to numerous highway closures throughout central and eastern portions of the state on Monday. At one point, the Idaho Transportation Department had closed portions of 10 highways throughout the region.

Locally, these sections included the highly avalanche-prone state Highway 21 section between Stanley and Lowman, state Highway 46 between the Fairfield area and Gooding and several sections of U.S. Highway 20 between Carey and Arco and Arco and Idaho Falls.

As one bright side to the storm, the heavy snowfall has brought the Big Wood Basin snowpack up to 106 percent of normal for this time of year.

Rating the local avalanche danger Tuesday, Chris Lundy, an avalanche forecaster with the local Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, said the danger in south and central portions of the valley still remains high.

The storm fell on a "weak, faceted snowpack and it will take time for conditions to stabilize," Lundy said. "I recommend avoiding travel on or beneath steep slopes. This certainly includes the out-of-bounds terrain on Baldy, but also roads and trails around the valley that pass beneath steep slopes."




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