Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Avalanche awareness is a community issue

Janet Kellam is the director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, based in Ketchum.


It was both ironic and opportune to have an "urban" avalanche cycle during Avalanche Awareness Week last week. Avalanches were no longer just a backcountry phenomenon, they were in our backyards.

Avalanches are part of living, playing and working in the mountains. If a slope is steep enough to slide and the snowpack becomes unstable, avalanches are possible. Avalanches don't care if the slope is at Galena Summit or along Warm Springs Road or behind Woodside. Avalanche conditions are not common around town, especially for large avalanches, but almost every winter we have some level of avalanche activity impacting more than just the backcountry skier or snowmobiler. Avalanche awareness is truly a concern for our entire valley and surrounding communities.

After the past week, I'd like to make a special plea to all residents in the Wood River Valley. If you play, work, live, visit friends, park your car, let your children play in or walk your dog in areas that have steeper slopes, you are spending time in avalanche terrain and need to understand some avalanche basics. Most of the time the avalanche conditions are stable, sometimes they are not. It is critical to know the difference. We all need to take some personal responsibility to understand what creates avalanche conditions, recognize the signs and be ready to change our actions and habits when conditions are poor.

Anyone who has chosen to live beneath avalanche slopes needs to be especially aware of conditions, and be more cautious when we have High avalanche danger. High Danger means spontaneous natural avalanches will be likely to occur. Snow-removal workers and homeowners should not send crews to work beneath avalanche slopes during High Danger. High Danger usually dissipates by the next day. Patience and avoidance during avalanche conditions has saved many lives.

Gas lines, meters and shut-off valves create an additional danger. Many homes carefully engineered against avalanches have these lines placed on the side of the buildings, exposed to damage by avalanches and debris. The result is that explosive gas can leak from damaged lines and endanger everyone around. Firefighters, police, gas company workers and avalanche personnel were all at risk by dealing with these circumstances last week. This can and needs to be changed in all the homes before next winter. Engineering and mitigation is important, but ongoing evaluation and adjustment is necessary to ensure these programs work and to improve their effectiveness.

The city of Ketchum has been proactive and worked hard to alert residents to conditions. Please respect this information and follow recommendations to limit your exposure to avalanche slopes. Understand and anticipate the conditions—don't wait for someone to come tell you every time as this may not always be possible.

Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center avalanche advisories are for the backcountry. They can apply to slopes around town but are not site specific. Check them regularly but know they are not precise information for your situation. A specific forecast program for residential slopes requires full-time surveillance, special instrumentation and large sums of money. The best way to deal with our problems is avoidance during times of High Danger and to implement good structure design. During Extreme Danger, which historically has occurred along Warm Springs, and means large, destructive avalanches are certain, the best tool is to evacuate the area for a day or two until conditions improve.

Avalanches are a part of our community. We can learn how to live with this before we may be faced with painful 20/20 hindsight.

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