CDOT says prolific avalanche mitigation led to undetonated ordnance
As an unprecedented avalanche season tore its way through Summit County and the rest of the Western Slope this winter, the Colorado Department of Transportation responded in kind with a considerable number of mitigation missions.
With more than 1,500 explosives dropped on slide paths around the state, a few are bound to be duds. According to CDOT, the department performed 1,569 explosive detonations this winter on avalanche mitigation missions, about 10 times more than last winter. There are currently 22 pieces of unexploded ordnance around the state from projects this winter, as first reported by KDVR, or just over 1.4% of the total explosives used.
“The amount of missions we ran this year was much higher than what we’ve seen in the past,” said CDOT spokeswoman Tracy Trulove. “The number of duds is actually pretty low for the number we had.”
Trulove said that the undetonated pieces of ordnance are from projectiles shot into slide paths using howitzer cannons and “avalaunchers” — compressed gas cannons. And while hikers should be cautious, Trulove said that the explosives likely don’t pose a major threat to backcountry recreationists.
“You’ve got to think about where these slide paths are,” said Trulove. “They’re usually really high up on the mountain, and I’d be surprised if people were hiking in them. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s good to be aware.”
Trulove said that CDOT has about 70 trained individuals as part of their explosives team, and that it’s likely one of the department’s teams will locate the explosives before anyone else stumbles upon them, though it pays to be vigilant. The explosives are shaped like mini-torpedoes, resembling the general size and shape of a Nerf football, and are typically colored yellow, orange or blue.
If you do come across an explosive, don’t try to get close or move it. Instead contact the Summit County Sheriff’s Office immediately, which will work with other emergency services to remove or detonate the device. Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said that protocol in regards to explosives largely depends on the situation. If an explosive is found on private property, the office will call in the Jefferson County Bomb Squad for advice and response if necessary. If an explosive is found on Forest Service land, that call goes to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Just last year, an unexploded charge was discovered on Peak 7 in Breckenridge, and was safely detonated by the sheriff’s office and Breckenridge Ski Patrol.
The 22 undetonated explosives are spread out across the state, and could theoretically be found anywhere mitigation work was done this winter, including at the Little Professor and Widowmaker slide paths above Arapahoe Basin, and along the Ten Mile Canyon. While the idea of tripping over an explosive device is certainly unnerving, Trulove said that CDOT doesn’t have a record of any incidents where someone was injured or involved in an explosion with an undetonated piece of ordnance.
CDOT utilizes explosives in a number of different ways for avalanche mitigation. Aside from howitzer cannons and avalaunchers, CDOT will either place case charges by hand or drop them from helicopters onto slide paths. Though, the department has made steps to modernize mitigation efforts recently.
Earlier this year CDOT, in partnership with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the U.S. Forest Service, installed 15 new O’bellx avalanche control systems around the Western Slope. The new systems are essentially fixed pods on the side of the mountains, which fill with gas and initiate an explosion when triggered. But the new devices, meant to increase safety for CDOT workers and the public, are somewhat cost-prohibitive with a $120,000 price tag plus installation costs.
“The thing about those programs is they’re expensive,” said Trulove. “We’re always going to bump into funding as being a challenge for how we grow the avalanche program. There’s also going to be locations where we continue to use the howitzer, avalauncher and helicopter operations purely because of where they’re located, and the cost of getting the units up there. It makes sense to have all these tools in our toolbox.”
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