Avalanche risk high as city hits record

As of Wednesday, Juneau marked 195.3 inches of snowfall

Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2007

Juneau set a seasonal snowfall record Wednesday as officials warned of extreme avalanche danger and set up a temporary shelter for people who wanted to move out of danger zones.

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"The danger remains high because if something does release, the slides are running big," said Bill Glude, director of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

Snow accumulation early Wednesday brought the total snowfall to 195.3, breaking the previous record by an inch. The previous record season was 1964-65, with 194.3 inches.

"We did just barely get into the new record territory," said Jim Truitt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Johnnie Patterson, 72, said this was the most memorable winter she has seen during her 30 years in Juneau.

"This is the snowiest I've ever seen it," she said. "It's beautiful, and when the sun shines we forget about it, but it's getting a little bit old. Now the snow is ugly. It is usually pretty."

City's snowiest seasons

Inches Season

195.3 2006-07

194.3 1964-65

183.6 1975-76

178.1 1971-72

175.1 1970-71

155.1 1955-56

150.9 1962-63

149.7 1965-66

146.6 1994-95

139.5 1990-91

Snow accumulation as of Wednesday. Source: National Weather Service.

While some people celebrated the record, city safety officials remained on high alert for potential avalanches. The avalanche center raised its danger level to "extreme" Wednesday, the highest on its scale.

Authorities also cautioned that local flooding could occur.

Glude said the avalanche danger decreased Wednesday evening because rainfall was less than expected, but he said the potential for a massive avalanche remained.

More than 60 homes, a hotel, a busy boat harbor and several roadways, including sections of Egan Drive, are considered at risk from several avalanche paths on Mount Juneau.

The Alaska Department of Transportation, conducting avalanche control, triggered a huge slide on Thane Road. Glude said it was bigger than any he had previously seen in that well-known avalanche path.

"The dust cloud slide from that went almost all the way to Mayflower Island" in Gastineau Channel, he said.

Glude estimated that roughly 600 to 900 feet of roadway were covered with more than 21 feet of snow.

Thane Road was closed while crews worked to clear the roadway.

Although the record snowfall has left copious amounts of snow on the top of the mountains, not all of it poses a danger to the community, Glude said.

"It's not that we have so much snow that we are waiting for it to come down on us," Glude said.

The base of the snowpack is strong, but the top layers are susceptible to avalanche with the present weather cycle, Glude said. He said the center's "extreme" danger warning would likely be in effect until Thursday morning.

"The risk is high enough that we have to give it a little more time until the snowpack has had time to adjust," Glude said.

The city opened Zach Gordon Youth Center for residents wanting to relocate temporarily from danger zones.

"Certainly the fact that we've exceeded the record snowfall and because of the conditions, we have very significant concerns here," said Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Eric Mohrmann.

Families living in areas with avalanche danger should be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice and should have a plan for escape, Mohrmann said.

"If an avalanche should occur, then it is really important that people and their family know a safe place to meet," he said.

Glude said people living in areas with avalanche danger should monitor the avalanche center's Web site for further updates.

"We may be getting avalanches but at least we made the snow record," he said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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