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Avalanche experts eye federal funding

BOB BERWYNspecial to the daily
Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk Arapahoe Basin ski patroller Rebecca Hodgetts and director of ski patrol Tim Finnigan shoot charges onto the area's east wall Saturday demonstrating to a crowd of dozens of skiers and boarders how patrol uses its avalauncher to do avalanche control work on the rugged east wall.
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As avalanche experts in Colorado and around the West warily watch the complex late winter snowpack, they are also keeping an eye on Washington, D.C., where Alaska’s Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has reintroduced a five-year, $15 million spending measure that could help curb a rising avalanche death toll.The bill also is intended to ensure reliable replacements for the dwindling supply of explosives used to control avalanches above highways and railroads and in ski areas.A similar bill passed the Senate last year but Congress adjourned before the House had a chance to act on the proposed legislation. Colorado Congressman Mark Udall (D-Boulder) said he would consider cosponsoring such a measure during the current session, calling it an “important tool” to help protect Colorado communities.Dave Hamre, an avalanche expert with the Alaska Railroad who has been working with Stevens’ office to craft the bill, said support has come because of national attention paid to avalanche deaths in Colorado and California this year.As previously passed by the Senate, the bill would create a national advisory board to review and prioritize proposed avalanche projects in terms of their benefits in risk reduction.

The results would be forwarded to the Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, which has historically been at the forefront of avalanche research and mitigation in the United States.The Forest Service spends about $450,000 annually to manage avalanche centers. Most of the funding is dedicated to education, by providing avalanche hazard advisories, teaching avalanche awareness classes and developing avalanche awareness products like videos and websites, according to Doug Abromeit, the Idaho-based director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center.Can you legislate Mother Nature?Avalanches have killed more than a dozen people across six western states this winter, including two fatalities in Colorado.

Across the country, an average of 28 people have died annually during the past 10 winter seasons, with the five-year moving average climbing from about five deaths annually in the 1950s to more than 25 during the 1990s, according to statistics posted at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) website. Recent winters have seen a particularly high toll with the number of deaths climbing into the thirties in 2001-2002 and again in 2002-2003.The higher numbers can be partially attributed to increasing population in the region, but CAIC statistic also show that per capita deaths skyrocketed between 1990 and 2000 in some states – by 50 percent in Utah and more than 200 percent in Alaska and Montana. By contrast, the number of per capita avalanche deaths in Colorado dropped slightly, by about 5 percent, during that same time.Abromeit said there is no conclusive study showing that public safety improves with increased avalanche funding, but explained that avalanche fatalities occur in areas – including large parts of Alaska – that do not have an extensive avalanche advisory system. Hamre, the Alaskan expert, said it may be difficult to show a direct link between increased funding and prevention of fatalities, but said common sense suggests that more spending on education could help cut fatalities.

“There is currently no funding for avalanche education specific to snowmobilers,” Hamre said. “Probably less than 25 percent ride in avalanche terrain with rescue beacons and shovels. Their common practices, such as highmarking, are laden with risk,” Hamre said. Hamre said there are numerous examples around the West where preventive measures could save lives.”There was an avalanche in Cordova, Alaska, in about the year 2000 that wiped out a number of homes in an avalanche path, killing one person,” Hamre said. “The risk in that case was not well identified, nor were any safeguards in place to reduce the potential for this to happen.” “There are a number of situations in the west that are similar ticking time bombs where appropriate mitigation strategies could be put into place,” Hamre continued. “A prime example of this is the access road to Alpine Meadows in California. There are numerous houses being built in the avalanche run-out zone just below the road. There is a reluctance to use explosives to trigger avalanches because of the potential that they might hit a house.”


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