Advice from an expert

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2000

Avalanches are not isolated events. Their cycles are like salmon: When they are running there are lots of them, and when they aren't they aren't.

If one avalanche has occurred, secondary avalanches on that path are more likely than not, and nearby paths are probably about to slide, too. Motorists blocked by one slide need to go back to a safe zone, rather than waiting on the fringes of the path that just slid, or allowing their lineup to back up into the adjacent path.

It is extremely dangerous to hike or bike over or around the debris to get through the blocked portion of the roadway. More avalanches are likely, and highway workers are doing the right thing when they keep the right-of-way closed to all modes of travel until the period of danger passes.

People need to relax their expectations of having roadways open all the time. The price of our convenience is too often taken in human life. This winter a bulldozer operator was killed while trying to clear the Seward Highway after an avalanche. His bulldozer tumbled 400 feet by the powderblast of a secondary slide. And on our own Thane Road in 1974, a secondary slide buried and killed a loader operator. Working at night, there was no way for a spotter to even give warning in this case. It is because of that fatality that our state crews wisely stop work on clearing avalanches at dusk.

Often, too, a delay of a day or so is all it takes to allow unstable slopes to settle, bond and stabilize. Even explosive control work cannot always guarantee safety.

Right now, there is no one doing avalanche forecasting for the general public or for the highways in Southeast Alaska. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities does the best job it can, and its people deserve our commendation and support for how much they do with the minimal resources they are given. But their maintenance budget is too small for even a limited avalanche forecasting program.

It takes the entire maintenance crew to do an avalanche control mission, so all state roads must be plowed and sanded first, before they can shoot.

There is no mechanism in place to warn travelers in the meantime, when avalanche danger is high, or to close the road until control work can be done.

People who travel any avalanche-prone road regularly should take appropriate precautions during any period when slides are likely. They should get and wear an avalanche rescue transceiver, carry a small shovel and set of probes right in the cab next to them, and check in with a friend by cell phone or radio before traveling through the avalanche paths.

If you are buried and no one knows until hours later when you are reported missing, rescue may come too slow. Without a beacon, finding you will be very difficult. With a probe, if your car is not smashed and packed full of snow, you may be able to make an airhole to the surface and move the probe to signal for help. The shovel may allow you to dig to the surface if it's not too far.

The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center is an educational nonprofit corporation. We are struggling right now to raise enough money to be able to continue our primary function of avalanche education. We would like to be able to assist the city of Juneau in dealing positively with the urban avalanche hazards we face and eventually to provide avalanche forecasts as well. But these services require money.

If you would like to see these programs happen, you need to let your assembly, Legislature and governor know they are important to you. And if you want DOT to be able to do a better job on maintenance, you can best support them by helping them get the funding they need to do their job.

Bill Glude is an avalanche expert who heads up the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

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