My turn: Southeast avalanche center is Juneau's new best friend

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, a nonprofit agency, provides an important service for those of us who live in, travel through or work in areas around Juneau that are subject to potential avalanche dangers.

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With a record snowfall this season, we should consider the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center our new best friend. Center Director Bill Glude told me that, with the record snowfall and more due before the season is over, we can expect to live with the threat of deadly avalanches into mid-May. Tourists be warned.

As a mountain climber and backcountry skier, I have witnessed the power of avalanches and have ridden small avalanches down mountains in controlled glissades in Washington. As a Mountain Rescue member in Washington, I have recovered the bodies of climbers from an avalanche in the North Cascades. In fact, we had to run for our lives as another avalanche was thundering down at our rescue party. Fortunately for us, we were warned by radio about the impending slide by our base camp coordinator who could see us and the avalanche. Washington is fortunate to have a funded backcountry avalanche forecast service to warn those who chose to heed their warning about avalanche conditions.

Now that I am living in Juneau, I am comforted to know that we have the only urban avalanche forecast center in the nation. I am comforted to know that the state Department of Transportation performs avalanche control. Also, the city has an Urban Avalanche Response Plan, the necessary equipment to respond to it and the emergency staff to perform the job. I am not comforted to know that the funding for the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center runs out in mid-April. We will be at our own peril for up to 60 days without this service. The complete absence of a backcountry avalanche forecast program puts all backcountry travelers at risk.

According to the Avalanche Center, there is still a considerably large snow pack on Mount Juneau that could be triggered by changing weather conditions and cause avalanches during the spring. The center also says Juneau could be looking at this same winter weather for the next 15 years. I find it ironic that the federal Department of Homeland Security provided money for Juneau to buy emergency avalanche response equipment, such as avalanche probes, but the city is unable to get federal money to forecast these potential avalanches.

Our rescue party was lucky to have been warned about the impending avalanche. If the avalanche danger here increases after mid-April, there will be no one to warn the city to issue an evacuation alert for those in the path of a potential avalanche. If a destructive avalanche occurs, the city firefighters and police will be first on the scene to rescue the injured and recover any bodies. This is an avoidable scenario, if the state or the city of Juneau provides an additional emergency appropriation of a mere $22,500 to cover the cost of the center through the current mid-May avalanche season.

Permanent funding of $215,000 needs to be established for our new best friend, the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

• John C. Wynne is a former Washington state legislator, a member of the Mountaineers, a former member of Everett Mountain Rescue Unit and a founder and past chairman of the Washington Mountain Rescue Association.

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