Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Valley needs better threat-warning system

Blaine County and its cities should do more to protect citizens during times of high danger.

They should join together and expedite installation of a reverse 911 telephone system that could send automated messages to residences and citizens who may be at risk and to businesses that may unknowingly put service employees at risk during times of threat.

One of the untold stories of last year's Castle Rock Fire is that home evacuations were facilitated with a hastily rigged reverse 911 telephone system donated by a software company and put into place by volunteers who made the system work.

The system allowed evacuation notices to be broadcast to the phones of homes in threatened areas. Partially as a result of these warnings, thousands of people left their homes in an orderly and safe fashion.

Yet, despite the demonstrated effectiveness of the system, the county has still not allocated funds to put a permanent system in place.

With such a system this winter, the county and the cities could have broadcast warnings to homeowners and to businesses who might unwittingly send employees into dangerous areas.

Avalanches big and small are visible on steep slopes everywhere in the Wood River Valley. Some avalanches have occurred on hillsides where no one living has seen a slide before.

The Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center has posted photos of 19 local avalanches on its Web site—far from the total number that have occurred. (Note: None of the avalanches has occurred inside the controlled ski area).

It's time for city and county officials to reassess their mostly hands-off approach to avalanche danger.

Ketchum allows highly engineered homes to be built in slide zones as long as homeowners appear before the City Council to acknowledge the potential danger.

That strategy sounds good in the summertime in the independent West where men are men and women shovel their own driveways. It falls short in this age of second homes occupied by visitors and served by workers who may not be wise to the danger.

Ketchum and the county have posted warning signs in slide-prone areas. Roads that lead to hazardous hillsides have been posted for "local traffic only" with pedestrian traffic prohibited.

The warnings may be lost on people who have never seen an avalanche or who may or may not speak or read English.

No one has been killed in an avalanche this winter. The cities and the county could and should do more to keep it that way.

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