City's urban avalanche forecast canceled

Assembly, nonprofit group fail to reach agreement on funds

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Juneau's residents will not be provided avalanche warnings this winter since the Juneau Assembly could not reach an agreement with a forecaster to fund the service.

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The city received one proposal, from Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, to provide an urban avalanche warning for residents. The nonprofit organization requested $156,000 to provide the service that last year let residents know when avalanche danger was high enough that they should consider spending less time at home or in area danger zones.

The city budgeted $50,000 for the service, $10,000 more than last year, but the budget fell well below the funds needed to run the program, said Bill Glude, executive director of the avalanche center.

While his organization received a $15,000 grant and raised $1,200 during a fundraiser earlier this year, Glude said the city's offer would have left him nearly $90,000 short.

The Assembly Finance Committee met last week in an executive session to discuss Glude's proposal. During the meeting, members said the parameters weren't acceptable and asked for changes, City Manager Rod Swope said.

Swope and Glude talked Tuesday, and were unable to reach an agreement, both men said.

"The Assembly felt frustrated that what cost $40,000 a year ago was coming in at a price tag four times as much this year," said Assembly member Jeff Bush, who attended the executive session. "We felt strongly that the price tag shouldn't be any higher."

The avalanche center was able to subsidize last year's program by using snowpack data it was paid to collect under a private contract for Kensington Mine, but Glude no longer holds that contract. Without the subsidy, the price went up.

The Assembly asked that Glude shorten the forecasting period to three months and start in the spring, the season that usually brings the highest potential for avalanches in Juneau.

That suggestion did not sit well with Glude, who said in order to do a professional job, he and his staff would need to spend six months studying the snowpack and collecting data.

"Starting mid-season is like reading only the chapter in a book where the story climaxes," Glude said. Snowpack study requires daily observations that culminate in a forecast based on all the data recorded since snow begins to fall, Glude explained. "(The Assembly) wanted to lead us into a position of being professionally negligent."

Sixty-two homes on eight streets located mainly north of Highlands Drive near downtown are situated in an avalanche run-out zone that brings threat to life and property during times of high avalanche probability. A hotel, a harbor and two sections of the main highway are also located in the zone.

Glude planned to hire two additional forecasters and an office assistant - bringing the staff total to five - to put together the data that would provide early warnings when snow could slide. The warnings would have been published on the organization's Web site so that residents could plan to stay out of avalanche zones if they chose to.

Last year, shelters were set up for residents during times of high danger.

Juneau is somewhat of a poster child in the international avalanche community as an example of an urban avalanche disaster waiting to happen, Glude said.

"It's potentially the largest avalanche danger area in North America," he said.

The last big avalanche event in Juneau happened in 1985, causing only minor damage. The worst on record slid in 1962.

Swope said Tuesday he would set up an informal contact group this spring to collect information such as heavy snow warnings from the National Weather Service, and distribute the information through public service announcements.

Swope planned to include Eaglecrest Ski Area, which does its own avalanche mitigation, but said he recognized that information collected on the other side of the valley and 13 miles away could not be directly extrapolated and applied to Mount Juneau over downtown.

He would also include the Department of Transportation, Swope said. The department makes decisions about avalanche control work on the road to Thane north of downtown.

"We'll certainly not get into the forecast business, but we'll try (to help with awareness)," Swope said.

After 12 years of "banging my head against the wall," Glude said Tuesday he is finished trying to convince the city it needs to do something about its avalanche danger. The avalanche center will continue to educate and raise awareness about avalanches, he said, and hopefully be available if forecasting becomes a priority.

The fundraising dollars collected earlier this year will help pay costs accrued last month, when Glude started collecting data and gearing up for this season, he said.

• Contact Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kimberly.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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