During the high snowslide season this winter, Juneau residents will be able to look online, glance at an icon depicting the day's avalanche danger, and decide whether they want to go home after work.
"I am sure we will (check it), depending on the weather outside. That really is a great idea," said Eric Ponce, a student-teacher at the Juneau-Douglas High School who moved to Alaska with his wife six months ago.
He spoke with a reporter in the driveway of his rented apartment at the top of Bartlett Avenue - a street in the path of potentially heavy slides coming down the White path,
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one of Juneau's most precarious avalanche zones. Along with a rental agreement, Ponce signed a waiver acknowledging he understood the avalanche risk.
"It was the only place we could find that allowed dogs," he said.
Ponce and his neighbors will be able to check current conditions thanks to a new urban forecasting system being put into place by a nonprofit group, the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.
A major portion of the funding - $45,000 - is coming from the city of Juneau. It is the first time the city has funded an avalanche forecasting system, said city special projects officer Maria Gladziszewski.
With money also collected from donations and various state grants, the primarily volunteer-driven center plans to provide daily forecasts for two avalanche paths - the one above Ponce's home in the White subdivision; the other, over the Behrends Avenue neighborhood, closer to downtown.
Know and go
What: The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center is raising money for its urban avalanche forecasting system by hosting two screenings of the Teton Gravity Research film, "Anomaly."
When: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., Nov. 10.
Where: Centennial Hall.
Cost: $12 at the door; $10 in advance at the Centennial Hall ski and snowboard sale Nov. 4.
Juneau's third most prone area is Thane Road, but since it falls under the state's jurisdiction, it will not be part of the daily online forecast.
Greg Patz, the chief of maintenance and operations for the Southeast Region's Department of Transportation, said his agency gives the Avalanche Center just less than $5,000 per year for forecasting services for the road.
Both the White and Behrends avalanche paths are on the steep side of Mount Juneau, which towers over the area at an elevation of 3,576 feet.
Historic avalanche data - much of which is captured in anecdotes or old photos - depicts slides from the mountain reaching the beach and Gastineau Channel. Avalanche expert and center director Bill Glude says old-timers from the first half of the 20th century remember walking across avalanche debris on their way to school - long before Egan Drive was built.
Avalanches in the Behrends and White neighborhoods have been less severe in the latter part of the century, but a large slide is still likely, Glude says.
"Avalanches are sort of like salmon. When they run, there are lots of them," he said.
Limited funding will enable the forecasting program to be in operation only from mid-February to mid-April, but it will give the center enough money for staff to get out in the field - a critical component of avalanche forecasting, says David Stone, an Assembly member who was a strong backer of the system.
"We will be able to have some flights up on the helicopter and they will have much better information," Stone said. "We felt we had a responsibility as a city to really have a good forecast. This is a health and safety issue."
Stone lives in Mendenhall Valley, far outside the scope of the two avalanche paths.
Yet having a forecasting system in place doesn't alleviate the danger - it just lets people know the risks to be able to make informed decisions.
"It will essentially give people a choice as to whether they would stay at home or stay with friends," Glude said. It also could be used by residents who might use Egan Drive on their way to work; or by workers, such as those assigned to power lines in the area, to determine if their duties are essential that day.
The idea is, "to have fewer people in the zone when it is ready to go," Glude said.
The center plans to mimic a current program already in place in Utah's Wasatch mountain range by the U.S. Forest Service. Daily, it will post a speedometer-style gauge or icon depicting whether danger is low, moderate, serious or high.
The center also plans to release daily "concerns," telling people the probability of a slide and its likely size. Finally, the report will explain the conditions themselves - how they are changing, what the winds are doing and whether slabs are forming.
The plan is to have the forecasting system available for syndication radio or newspapers, as well, Glude said. Eaglecrest Ski Area has its own avalanche program, but is somewhat different because it is backcountry.
"In the backcountry you are trying to educate people on what not to trigger. In urban areas, you educate people on what might come down on them," Glude said.
For roommates Luke Cleek and Zach Notestine, who live in a rented apartment on Bartlett Avenue near Eric Ponce, the thought of what might come down the mountain is not something they've talked much about.
Both said they hadn't discussed the issue, but would become wary if there was considerable snowfall this winter.
Notestine said, "the winters have been so weak (the past few years), but if we had a big winter it might be different."
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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