Panel prepares response plan for avalanches in city

Experts consider Juneau to be one of the largest municipal avalanche hazard areas in the country

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

The city has created a draft plan to respond to avalanches in populated parts of Juneau, which has one of the largest urban avalanche hazard areas in the country.

The Juneau Assembly's Emergency Planning Committee met with city staff and area emergency officials Wednesday to discuss the plan.

The plan identifies departments, agencies and individuals that are directly responsible for emergency response and support services. It provides a management structure for coordinating and deploying essential resources.

The committee wants to know the costs of implementing it, a backup plan in case the 911 system fails, an emergency contact list, and a method of providing daily information about the location of Juneau's four avalanche specialists.

The committee is expected to send a plan to the Assembly for approval at its Feb. 9 meeting.

Avalanches are of special concern to Juneau because parts of the city are located directly beneath avalanche paths, according to the draft plan.

National experts consider Juneau one of the largest municipal avalanche hazard areas in the country because of the combined threat from the Behrends Avenue subdivision path near Juneau-Douglas High School and the White Subdivision path, about a mile north of the school, as well as the paths that empty onto Thane Road. The high school is about 100 feet outside of an avalanche zone.

Avalanches have hit, damaged or destroyed at least 72 buildings within a 10-mile radius of downtown Juneau in the past century, the plan says.

Avalanche season runs from November to April, but the most critical time is December to March, said Bill Glude, director of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

In the mapped avalanche zone are: 62 houses; Breakwater Inn Restaurant and Lounge; two sections of Egan Drive, at Behrends Avenue and White Subdivision paths; Old Glacier Highway, Egan Drive and Thane Road; some streets in the Behrends Avenue and White Subdivision paths including Basin Road; the Flume between Gold Creek and Evergreen Avenue; and most of Aurora Harbor.

Forty houses are in the severe hazard zone, and 22 houses and the Breakwater are in the moderate hazard zone.

"Most people have no idea that the (Egan) highway is in a danger zone and so is the (Aurora) harbor," Glude said.

A very large avalanche could easily destroy every building in the avalanche zone, sweeping vehicles off the highways and damaging or destroying Aurora Harbor, the plan says.

Such a large slide also could block Glacier Highway and Egan Drive, hindering emergency response and possibly blocking road access to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

No houses are located in any of the 19 avalanche paths on Thane Road, but people in heavily used areas near Basin Road could be targets, Glude said.

In February 2002, a school bus on Thane Road was hit by the powder cloud from an avalanche, he said. The cloud was not moving fast enough to knock over the bus and no injuries were reported, he said.

The last slide to hit a residential area was in February 1985. A slide hit a garage on Troy Avenue in the Behrends Avenue path; another slide hit a house in the White Subdivision path. No injuries were reported.

"Most people don't recognize the danger because they've never seen it," Glude said.

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