Juneau looks at avalanche forecasting

Assembly to consider $55,000 expenditure for warning system in slide-prone areas

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When Highlands neighborhood resident Toni Fratzke goes to bed at night, she sometimes thinks about the possibility of a six-foot wall of snow crashing into her home.

Her stress level over the idea that an avalanche would bury her Glacier Avenue home increased two years ago, when the city funded a forecasting program that allowed her to check daily danger ratings on the Web.

"I didn't look at it every day because sometimes I didn't want to know," she said.

When the city did not fund the program last year Fratzke worried less, but she said she would support having it again.

The Juneau Assembly will meet tonight to discuss whether to spend $55,000 this winter on a system to warn residents in slide-prone neighborhoods such as Fratzke's when avalanche danger is high.

Last year, the one financial proposal submitted to complete the required work proved too costly. Elected officials decided to not fund it.

City Manager Rod Swope said the need to find a lower-cost solution became clear this spring, when the electric company did not monitor conditions or try to mitigate risks on its power lines before they were destroyed by avalanches in known slide paths.

"People were quite incensed. ... It was a real wake-up call," Swope said.

City staff worked on ideas that would provide the warnings within a budget the Assembly might support.

The proposal Swope will present tonight would pay for half of the $110,000 projected cost for this winter. Grants would pay the remainder.

If the Assembly approves the request, an avalanche forecaster would be hired in November and receive helicopter and staff support to do snow tests on Mount Juneau.

Forecasts would be for two avalanche paths - one above the Highlands neighborhood along Behrends Avenue and another further north above the White subdivision. The paths are on the steep side of Mount Juneau, which towers over the area at an elevation of 3,576 feet.

Historic avalanche data depicts slides from the mountain reaching the beach and Gastineau Channel. Avalanches in the neighborhoods have been less severe in the latter part of the century, but avalanche experts say a large slide is still likely.

An avalanche cascaded within about 120 feet of a home in the Highlands neighborhood in January 2007, leaving about 30 feet of debris over a large area. It caused no injury or structural damage.

The Web site where forecasts were posted in 2007 received about 8,000 hits per month, according to the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, a nonprofit organization that ran the program.

Fratzke stayed in her home that year despite the danger. She has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years.

"You don't know if you're snubbing your nose in the face of adversity or pushing your luck, or what," she said. "I guess I'm a fatalist. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or e-mail kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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