Slumbering menace

Researchers say more is needed to prevent avalanche disaster

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

It's been a long time since Juneau was seriously threatened by hundreds of tons of ice and snow crashing down from the mountains above.

But the possibility remains, and some are calling for intervention to lessen the threat.

Skip Gray, 54, remembers one of the last major avalanches, one with enough power to destroy part of downtown had it not landed nearby on Basin Road. The avalanche barreled down the Gold Creek slide in January 1972, covering Basin Road with about 30 feet of snow and ice and blasting downtown with a giant cloud of snow dust.

"If anyone had been walking along there, they would have been history," Gray said.

Gray, chief videographer for KTOO public radio and television, was south of downtown on Thane Road when the avalanche struck. He snapped off the nine remaining photos on his camera. The frightening image of a white cloud crashing down on Juneau earned him a place in National Geographic magazine.

No one was killed in the slide, but more than 70 buildings near downtown Juneau have been struck by avalanches in the last 100 years, according to Juneau officials.

Sixty-two houses, a hotel, two sections of Egan Drive and most of the Aurora Basin boat harbor sit in the country's most dangerous avalanche zone, according to local avalanche expert Bill Glude.

"Juneau has been accurately described as having the largest potential avalanche disaster in North America," said Glude, director of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

The Behrends and White subdivisions off Glacier Avenue near Juneau-Douglas High School are in the path of avalanche slides. The Behrends subdivision has 42 homes in the avalanche path and includes homes on Ross Way, Troy Avenue, Behrends Avenue and Glacier Avenue.

The White subdivision includes 20 homes within the slide zone on Bartlett Avenue, Dimond Drive and in the vicinity. Both the Behrends and White slide paths have the potential to reach Egan Drive and Gastineau Channel.

On March 22, 1962, an early-morning avalanche screamed down the side of Mount Juneau with wind gusts that ripped the roofs and chimneys off dozens of homes in the Behrends subdivision.

A news account from the Daily Alaska Empire said the slide began just after 5 a.m. and came to rest just above streets and buildings. Violent wind gusts created by the slide, however, shoved buildings from their foundations and snapped trees, turning them into airborne missiles. Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, no one was killed.

Tips for residents

• Pay attention to the weather. The level of avalanche danger changes every day.

• Carry a beacon whenever traveling in avalanche zones. For residents living in the highest hazard areas, this might mean wearing an avalanche beacon all the time. Remember that the beacon works only if you are wearing it.

• Consider reinforcing the structure of your home to withstand avalanche impact loads.

• Consider evacuating your home during times of high avalanche danger if you live in the path of the slide.

SOURCE: City of Juneau

Juneau resident J.A. Herdlick and his family awoke smothering in snow after the roof of their home at 245 Behrends Ave. was sheared off by the powerful winds, according to the news article. Several people said the slide sounded like an earthquake.

"I thought it was an explosion," the Empire quoted Mrs. Harvey Wilson the day of the slide.

Glude described the '62 avalanche as a 30-year event, meaning it's likely to happen once every 30 years. He said Juneau-Douglas High School is just out of the avalanche path, but the adjacent Breakwater Inn is within the hazard zone.

"The high school is a little close for comfort," Glude said. "It would take a very unusual event to hit it."

He said barriers could be used to protect the school but are expensive and not totally reliable.

Glude, 53, has dedicated his life to avalanche safety. He was a 19-year-old geology student at the University of Washington when he almost lost his life to a slide.

Glude and a friend were climbing in Washington's Cascade Mountains and decided to toboggan down, using their ponchos as sleds. They triggered an avalanche that almost sent Glude off the side of a cliff.

"I learned later that a number of people have been killed in that spot," Glude said. He said near-death experiences are a common bond among many avalanche experts. "That's a fairly typical story about how most of us got started," he said.

Glude checks the moisture, density and temperature of the snow and takes other measurements in avalanche danger areas around Juneau two or three times a week. Relying on the help of volunteers, Glude publishes an advisory on the avalanche center Web site but wants to expand the advisory area to several other towns in Southeast Alaska.

He said more funds are needed to ensure the safety of Juneau residents and backcountry hikers.

Glude works on a tight budget made up largely of sporadic one-time grants from the state, charitable contributions and money he earns from avalanche consulting jobs in the Juneau area. Government entities need to make avalanche safety a priority and contribute funds annually, he said.

Backcountry tips

• All backcountry travelers should take, at minimum, a basic avalanche awareness course before traveling.

• Know your terrain. Be aware of slope angles and other aspects of terrain that may indicate avalanche danger.

• Always carry a probe, beacon, and shovel when traveling in avalanche terrain.

• Avoid high-marking and other high-risk activities.

• Carry a cell phone and radio. Remember that cell phones and radios do not work well in mountainous terrains, though.

• If possible, tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, introduced a bill in 2003 authorizing the departments of Interior and Agriculture to make grants available across the nation for avalanche mitigation. But the U.S. House of Representatives didn't approve it.

"In 2002-2003, 58 people lost their lives in avalanches across North America," Stevens told the Senate Energy Subcommittee on National Parks last June. "We can help avoid such tragedy by assisting in maximizing the accessibility of accurate forecasts and providing increased grant opportunities for research."

Bob Janes, 82, a board member of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, designed a state avalanche warning system in the 1970s and early 1980s while working for the U.S. Forest Service.

But in the early 1980s the state cut funding for avalanche mitigation, Janes said. Stevens' bill would help restore plans to institute a real forecasting system, he said.

Juneau this year approved an avalanche response plan and an all-hazards mitigation plan to address the avalanche threat, said Michael Patterson, the city emergency programs manager.

Patterson coordinates the city's capability to respond to natural disasters. He said federal, state and local approval of the mitigation plan enables him to begin applying for grants.

Mitigation includes improving forecasting technology, constructing barriers and containment walls, and buying out homes in the avalanche zones downtown, he said.

"My short-term goal is to start with the forecast capabilities," Patterson said.

Glude said the city, state and federal governments should buy the homes and relocate the subdivisions as soon as possible.

"It's going to take some time to do that," Glude said. "In the meantime, the next step is to have the forecast so people know when the avalanche danger is high."

Patterson said the Juneau Assembly would have to allocate millions to buy the homes, a project that could take up to 20 years. He said a potential buyout concerns some homeowners worried that they wouldn't be paid the full value of their homes.

The residential property in moderate and severe hazard zones were worth $13 million in 2001, according to the city's All-Hazards Mitigation Plan.

"There's this complacency that it hasn't happened in awhile and it's never going to happen," Patterson said. "It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when."

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at

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