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Local officials staying ahead of spring avalanches

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY ” Record snow on area mountains could spell dangerous avalanches and runoff in the spring, and local emergency responders and Pitkin County officials want to stay ahead of potential disasters.

Law enforcement officials from Aspen to Basalt, as well as Pitkin County road and bridge crews, will meet Monday with experts from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The groups will discuss local emergency response, look at possible avalanche and runoff scenarios, and put together teams ready to respond to any catastrophe, according to Ellen Anderson, the county’s emergency management coordinator.

Emergency planning is nothing new, Anderson said. Area responders meet regularly to discuss scenarios ranging from avalanche and flood, to wildfire and pandemic flu. But this year’s record snowpack ” with more snow on the way ” has raised a red flag.

“It’s planning for an event that hasn’t happened yet,” said Pitkin County undersheriff Joe DiSalvo. “It’s a big what if.”

Area officials conduct mock exercises and put together an incident command structure ” a preplanned hierarchy officials put into motion in the event of a catastrophe ” DiSalvo said.

“We’re not telling anyone at this point to panic or worry,” DiSalvo said. “All we’re doing is getting ahead of it.”

“This is as big of a snowpack as we’ve seen in quite some time,” said Pitkin County Public Works director Brian Pettet, who manages county snow removal crews. “The biggest issue is up Castle Creek where we have an avalanche path.”

In 1994, an avalanche blocked off the Castle Creek Valley, and Pettet said county officials watch the situation there and along Maroon Creek Road very closely.

Following the Castle Creek slide, a professional avalanche analyst warned that a repeat of the Castle Creek slide was likely every 10 years or so, Pettet said.

“It’s a narrow chute, so it’s not a very long avalanche,” Pettet said. “But it comes from high up on the mountain.”

County snowplow drivers working in avalanche areas wear avalanche beacons, so they can be found in the event of a slide, and drivers check in before and after driving along Castle Creek Road, Pettet said.

“We monitor where they are at all times,” Pettet said, especially during peak spring avalanche months.

And with recent snow dumps, the slide area along Castle Creek is becoming narrow with snow buildup, Pettet said. But crews can’t widen the stretch because of potential slides whilst working in the area.

“In prior years I wasn’t too concerned about it, but this is some of the most extreme snowfall we’ve seen in a long time,” Pettet said.

“We live at 8,000 feet and avalanches are nothing new to us. What’s different this year is the amount of snow,” Anderson said. “I don’t want to be alarmist, but I want the public to be assured that we’re on it.”

Planning for any emergency does not mean just response teams, Anderson said, but trying first to prevent a catastrophe ” moving communities out of flood plains, for example ” and then planning. Public information is also an important component, Anderson said, adding that the last phases are the actual response to an incident and recovery after the event.

“Given the current weather and the weather for the last 45 days, it just seems prudent to stay ahead of the curve,” Anderson said. “And we are.”

cagar@aspentimes.com.


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