Colorado could soon start using a new avalanche forecasting method following Joint Budget Committee recommendation

Committee staffers to begin drafting new legislation

John LaConte
Vail Daily
No one was found buried in a large avalanche on the north side of Loveland Pass on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy photo

The Colorado General Assembly’s Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday voted in favor of sponsoring a $1 million funding effort to help the Colorado Avalanche Information Center transition from a fixed zone forecasting method to a flexible-zone method.

The fixed-zone method issues avalanche forecasts for large, pre-determined regions throughout the state, while a flexible-zone method divides those regions into subregions based on day-to-day avalanche conditions on the ground.

Joint Budget Committee staff member Mitch Burmeister described the fixed-zone method as being more rigidly delineated and less consistent than a flexible-zone method.

“There are really large swaths of territory in the individual zones,” Burmeister said Tuesday. “What is potentially dangerous in one part of the zone might be completely a non-issue in another part, but if you are a consumer of this zone, you go online and you look at it and you say ‘this zone is dangerous, I better not go out,’ but you might actually be OK going out — or visa versa.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is set to begin receiving $1 million in annual funding from the new Keep Colorado Wild state parks pass, but those revenues aren’t expected to reach the avalanche center’s coffers until fiscal year 2024-25. In the meantime, the Joint Budget Committee has recommended the Colorado House and Senate approve legislation supporting a one-time appropriation of $1,075,419 cash funds from the state’s severance tax operational fund into the Colorado Avalanche Information Center fund for the purchase of special equipment and remote motoring systems.

The recommendation to sponsor the legislation gives the Joint Budget Committee staff permission to begin working with legislators to begin drafting legislation in support of the $1,075,419 appropriation.

The recommendation comes out of a desire to keep the two full-time positions that have already been hired by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center without having to pause the work that the center has started. The center has begun a transition to a new staffing model, putting all of the forecasting and public communication duties in the hands of permanent staff, while the temporary staff is only responsible for data collection, Burmeister said.

“They essentially want to keep doing the work they have been doing with the revenue that they thought they would have, but that they won’t have until fiscal year 2024-25,” Burmeister said.

In addition to transitioning to a flexible-zone forecasting system, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is looking to replace outdated IT infrastructure.

“Their goal is to keep people safe, and they do that by communicating with the public,” Burmeister said. “They can only be effective if they’re able to communicate that technology to the wider public, and so they’re improving their communication tools and their forecast methodologies.”

Avalanche forecasters in Canada have switched to a flexible-zone method of avalanche forecasting last year. Avalanche Canada reports that the new system has allowed forecasters to more accurately reflect backcountry conditions as the forecast regions are now determined by the avalanche conditions.

“While we are covering the same area we always have, the forecast regions are now dynamic, with boundaries that change in response to conditions,” Avalanche Canada says on its website.

Avalanche forecasters in Canada now determine the regional boundaries on a daily basis, no longer using predetermined forecast regions or region names.

“We’ve made these changes to tackle one of our biggest problems with our old system, where conditions would often vary significantly across some of our larger regions,” according to Avalanche Canada.

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