Avalanche center, state agency merge | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche center, state agency merge

The nonprofit Roaring Fork Avalanche Center (RFAC), the only local forecaster of avalanche conditions, is merging with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), a state agency.

It’s a welcome change for Brian McCall, who founded the RFAC in the 2005-06 season to fill a gap in forecasting. Before McCall began the RFAC, Ashcroft often would have the same forecast as Marble, where the average snowfall can be twice as much.

“It made sense to join forces with those guys,” McCall said. “I think you’ll see a big improvement having their budget behind me. The whole product on the website and e-mails that go out daily will be a little cleaner. The weather forecasts will be better. There will be more graphics on the forecasts. Basically, it will be neater, cleaner, easier to understand.”

In beginning the nonprofit, McCall left his job on the Aspen Highlands ski patrol. The U.S. Forest Service gave him office space and insurance for his operation, but little else. So McCall has sought grants from both the city and county, as well as donations from individuals.

Getting funding hasn’t always been easy, so by merging with CAIC, McCall will be paid by the state agency to do local forecasting three or four days a week. All of that information will be on the CAIC website instead of the RFAC site.

Though the RFAC will continue to exist, it will be mostly a fundraising arm so that McCall can work more than three or four days a week.

The RFAC, meanwhile, has increased the scope of forecasting in the past few years with a more localized approach, expanding to 16 forecasters in 10 zones.

“We’ve all realized Colorado is a really big place, and the better local information we can get, the better public-safety service we can do,” CAIC director Ethan Greene said Wednesday. “We feel it’ll raise the bar of quality for everybody.”

Greene said his office can’t afford full-time forecasters but that it will have better information for forecasts on McCall’s days off. For McCall, the more information in a central place, the easier it will be for people to make plans and travel safely in the backcountry.

Of five avalanche deaths in Colorado last season, three were in Pitkin County, according to the CAIC website. Colorado had the most avalanche fatalities of any state from 1950 to 2006, and Pitkin County is a close second to Summit County for most avalanche deaths in a county since 1950.

“I got a couple of turns in this morning and it wasn’t all that bad,” McCall said Wednesday, adding that forecasts will start between Nov. 1 and 15. “It was pretty stable. Things are starting to get a bit deeper above treeline for sure, but the shallow snowpack is probably the biggest hazard right now. Skiing conservatively is a good thing.”

Joel Stonington’s e-mail is jstonington@aspentimes.com

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