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City on the Edge

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

A year after a record snowfall and weeks of high-danger forecasts in Juneau's urban avalanche zones, neighborhoods have returned to the way they were before the city's avalanche warning system existed: No forecaster is watching for slides that could hit 62 homes and one hotel.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

For one season, in 2007, the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center monitored the snowslide threat to homes in the Behrends and White subdivisions and posted forecasts online. Avalanche expert Bill Glude oversaw the forecasts for the two neighborhoods, at the foot of Mount Juneau.

The city did not renew its contract with the avalanche center this year. When or if the center's forecast will return is unknown.

"If I thought about it, I'd scare myself," said Butch Holst, who is a 30-year Behrends Avenue resident.

In general, Holst said he doesn't think much about avalanches and didn't care for last year's forecast system.

"He [Glude] was scaring the living daylights out of people," Holst said. "People on this block were running for the hills every other day."

Holst's neighbor Tom Hall has lived on Behrends Avenue for seven years. Before reading last year's forecasts, Hall said he never seriously thought about the avalanche danger at his house.

This season Hall isn't concerned because of the amount of snow.

But during big snow years, he said he would rather have the service than not.

Though it's been 23 years since avalanche debris has reached homes on Behrends Avenue, snowslide danger exists on Mount Juneau every winter and spring, at varying levels, Glude said.

"Large avalanches are possible any time from between November and April," he said.

For 14 years Dan Stocking lived on Troy Avenue next to a home that was partially buried in the 1980s when an avalanche blew down the Behrends path and across Troy Avenue into backyards on Behrends Avenue.

Over the years Stocking has seen one avalanche debris pile, about 300 yards north of his house. He's never seen a slide come closer to his home.

Standing on his porch he said, "I could see it from here."

A former mountain climber, Stocking said he doesn't worry much about the danger on his street because he's comfortable deciding the danger level himself. He said he can live without the forecast, but his downhill neighbors might find it useful.

"If I lived on Behrends I might be interested," he said.

Glude said he submitted a bid for $50,000 to forecast for three months, but told the city he really needed twice as much to cover the entire season from November to April. In total, Glude said he needed $156,096, but about a third of that would come from other sources.

He said negotiations got stuck when the city only wanted to fund the three months and not the full season.

"The city wanted either a forecast for the few months they thought were the highest danger, or six months for the price of three," Glude said.

City Manager Rod Swope said he couldn't discuss why the city passed over Glude's bid because the decision was made behind closed doors in executive session.

City Attorney John Hartle said the city had no legal requirement to provide an avalanche forecast to citizens living in the slide paths. Whether the city has a forecast "is a matter of discretion," he said.

State law protects cities from lawsuits related to "discretionary function," he said.

Glude said future attempts to raise city funding for a forecast will rest with the avalanche center board.

"After 12 years of beating my head against the wall without pay for the benefit of the community, I'm resigning and moving on to focus on the consulting work and teaching that have always paid my bills," he said.

Without the avalanche forecast, Swope said the city relies on snowpack information from the Alaska Department of Transportation, Eaglecrest Ski Patrol and storm warnings from the National Weather Service.

But meteorologist Joel Curtis of the National Weather Service said his office does not forecast avalanches. And the Department of Transportation only does a visual check for Thane Road slide paths, rather than maintain the complicated daily records kept by avalanche forecasters.

Swope considers Eaglecrest Ski Area a better source of information because it relies on avalanche professionals who use snow science. But even that information is hard to correlate to what might happen on Mount Juneau, he said.

In late January, Eaglecrest's biggest snowfalls of the year were followed by a warming trend and the top 20 inches of the snowpack began to move. Ski area Manager Kirk Duncan called the city to say the snowpack had moved three or four feet.

Duncan's call was the only warning the city received this year, and Swope said he was on the radio program Capital Chat the same day letting people know what he knew.

Weeks before a 1985 White Path avalanche that trapped a woman in her Wickersham Avenue home, a state avalanche forecaster recommended the city buy out homeowners in the various slide paths and turn the acquired land into a park.

Twenty-three years after the recommendation, the city's first land purchase in the White Path is ongoing. The city has agreed to pay $40,000 for 9.3 acres of undeveloped property, said Cynthia Johnson, city lands and resources officer.

"We said we would never make it available for future development," Swope said.

At least three others in the Behrends path have asked the city to buy homes. Swope said the city is pursuing the buy-out option with Federal Emergency Management Administration money.

"It's a lengthy process," he said. "It won't happen anytime soon."

Stocking said fears about living in an avalanche path helped his longtime girlfriend buy the home they share on Troy Street. The previous homeowner had trouble selling every time potential buyers became aware of the danger that came with the location, he said.

"People would almost buy it," Stocking said. "In the end they bailed out."

Eventually Stocking's partner worked a deal with owner financing and bought the home. Last year she spent one night away at the height of danger, she said.

Juneau Realtor Sean Paul said last year's avalanche buzz from officials, forecasters and the media didn't hurt home sales in the danger zones.

"You would think it would have made it harder," he said. "It's counter-intuitive, but it helped to talk about the possibilities and got it out to the public."

Paul supports the return of the forecast. "Heck, I'd think that all the citizens of Juneau would be interested in it."

Swope said he could not think of any positive reason to not have an avalanche forecast. But he offered one drawback.

"In my position this time of year, it was beneficial to have on site accurate information," he said.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com



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