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Avalanche forecasters warn Northern Rockies enthusiasts to stay home

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho ” Regional avalanche warning centers in the Northern Rockies are urging backcountry snow enthusiasts to stay home for a few days because of extreme avalanche danger.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center said rain and heavy snow has created a “window of extreme avalanche danger” in the Inland Northwest.

Separate avalanche warnings were issued by regional centers for areas of west-central Montana, including the Bitterroot Mountains and the Rattlesnake Wilderness, and in northwest Montana.

Warm, moist air pouring into the area, with strong winds and significant moisture, were combining to create dangerous avalanche conditions, said Steve Karkanen of the Missoula avalanche center.

Most of the moisture is rain, Karkanen said, with only the higher peaks and ridges above 7,500 feet getting accumulations of snow.

“This is a big load to an already stressed snowpack and will need to be monitored closely for the next couple of days,” Karkanen said.

Deadly slides in Utah, Montana and Idaho in recent weeks have moved avalanche concerns to the consciousness of even those who don’t normally venture into areas where slides may occur. Avalanche deaths have been increasing in recent years as more and more people, often aided by powerful snowmobiles, venture into avalanche territory.

About 30 people now die every year in avalanches in the United States, compared with an average of five or less before the 1970s.

“We’re going to see the number of avalanche fatalities increase,” said Dale Atkins, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “You hit the one wrong spot, and everything can come down.”

Snowmobilers, who comprise about 45 percent of avalanche fatalities since the late 1990s, lead the increase. Advances in snowmobile technology have made it easier for people to reach avalanche-prone areas in the backcountry, Atkins said.

At ski resorts, where crews deliberately trigger avalanches to clear slopes before skiers arrive, the practice of skiing out-of-bounds ” outside of marked, cleared slopes ” is growing in popularity, said Stephen Lane, spokesman for Kellogg’s Silver Mountain. Most resorts are located on U.S. Forest Service land or are surrounded by public land.

“We can’t stop people from going out there,” Lane said.

Avalanche forecasters in Idaho’s Panhandle say the risk of avalanches is expected to lower later this week as the warm air and rain bind the new snow with the harder underlayer.

“If it stays warm, then it will start to stabilize in the next couple of days,” said Bob Kasun, a Forest Service avalanche forecaster in Coeur d’Alene. “But all this new stuff is popping off pretty easily right now.”

On the Net:

http://www.avalanche.org


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