Gov. Knowles makes pitch for an avalanche warning system

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Michael Deppner Jr. was walking near Sheep Mountain south of Juneau several years ago when he heard a "whump" and an avalanche fell on his head.

An outcropping of snow weakened by high winds had cut loose, and suddenly Deppner was in a fight for his life.

He rode the avalanche down the mountain on his side with his left arm pinned under his body. Deppner fought to keep his other arm above the snow, knowing he would die if he were buried.

When the avalanche was through, he was encased under two feet of packed snow, but his right hand was above the surface.

"When I came to a stop I used my wrist and dug down to my face so I could breathe. Then I dug myself out," Deppner said. "I was lucky to be alive."

Deppner realized in hindsight the windy conditions were right for an avalanche that day and that he should not have been on the mountain. If Juneau had an avalanche forecast system, he might have been spared the ordeal, he said.

"They would have broadcast a high avalanche warning due to wind loading. That would have been ample information for most people to stay home," Deppner said.

If Gov. Tony Knowles has his way, Alaskans will be privy to avalanche hot spots before they head into harm's way.

Knowles on Wednesday unveiled a $750,000 budget proposal to resurrect the Alaska Avalanche Warning Center, a program mandated by state law but disbanded 25 years ago after the Legislature stopped funding it.

Twenty-four Alaskans have died in avalanches in the past three years, said Bob King, spokesman for Knowles, a Democrat.

"That's a public safety concern that the state has an obligation to respond to," King said.

The governor has tried in vain to resurrect the center in past years, and it's unclear whether the Republican-controlled Legislature is willing to fund it now.

Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson said the governor may have a hard time selling the proposal to lawmakers because the state is financially strapped.

"I think it is a tough time in this fiscal year to be asking for anything totally new unless he can really prove the point it's going to save lives or perhaps even save money somewhere along the line," said Hudson, who serves on the House Finance Committee.

Knowles wants to spend $350,000 to set up the Alaska Avalanche Warning Center, $85,000 on public education, $50,000 on search-and-rescue training and $265,000 on search-and-rescue equipment, which would be placed in caches around the state.

About $85,000 would go to state agencies, but $665,000 would go to a private contractor to run the center, said Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.

Among other things, the center would gather information about weather conditions, snow pack, and snow slides and would forecast avalanche conditions around the state.

The proposal is supported by Bill Glude, director of the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, a private, nonprofit group that gives lectures and workshops on avalanche safety.

Glude opened the center in 1996 after a friend died in an avalanche near Juneau. The center has an annual target budget of roughly $80,000, which Glude covers through consulting jobs, grants, donations and class fees.

The center gets no direct funding from local, state or federal governments, even though Alaska ranks as the most dangerous place for avalanches, he said.

Alaska surpassed Colorado in total avalanche deaths the past three years, said Glude, noting an average of eight Alaskans died annually each year since 1998 compared with roughly six people a year in Colorado. Two Juneau skiers were among the dead in 1999.

Avalanche forecasts are a vital service but the Juneau center is too cash-poor to provide it, said Glude, who hopes some of the money comes his organization's way if lawmakers approve the proposal.

"We'd really like to be able to do public forecasts," Glude said. "We're very close. We need one more person and then we're there."

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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