Alpine Meadows resumes avalanche control along road
The bombs exploded over the West and East gullies above Alpine Meadows Road Wednesday morning, ending the poker game over avalanche control that had risen to high stakes with this week’s heavy snowfall.
“Today was the first day we thought there was a real threat to the road,” said Larry Heywood, director of snow safety and ski patrol for Alpine Meadows Ski Area, on Wednesday.
“We did avalanche control this morning and we’re going to do it again at 4:30 today. This is a fairly decent storm and there is some avalanche risk.”
No one has been providing avalanche control for Alpine Meadows Road this winter, which didn’t threaten public safety until a storm began Monday and broke a two-week spell of mild weather.
“I’m very much encouraged that snow safety is going on,” said North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw, who added that the dispute which stopped the avalanche control in the first place still needs to be resolved.
Contracted by Placer County to keep the road safe from avalanche hazard since 1974, Alpine Meadows Ski Area stopped providing the snow safety control in December because of a disagreement over who holds legal liability for potential damages to homes below the road.
The ski area decided it no longer wanted to indemnify (or hold legally free of responsibility) the county and the owners of the land where the avalanche control is done, according to Heywood.
When it terminated a 25-year-old agreement with the Alpine Springs County Water District and Troy Caldwell in December, the two landowners told the ski area that it cannot use their land for avalanche control.
Without access to the land, ski area personnel could not provide avalanche control for the county road.
As 11 inches of snow fell Tuesday at lake level, county personnel gathered together in an emergency meeting to hastily put together an action plan for closing Alpine Meadows Road in case public safety was threatened without the avalanche control.
“If there isn’t going to be snow safety, the prospect of that happening rises dramatically,” Whitelaw said.
But, at the Tuesday meeting, Heywood announced that the ski area will start avalanche control on the road again.
“We told the group that in spite of not having any agreements We feel we have a moral obligation to protect the health and safety and welfare of our employees and guests and the users of the road,” Heywood said.
He added later that closing the road could also affect “the health and safety and welfare of our own business.”
Historically, the ski area has provided avalanche control and the community has relied on it, he said.
“We have the experience, expertise and tools to do it. There’s really no one else who can do it,” he said.
The ski area decided to go ahead and provide avalanche control for Alpine Meadows Road, citing its legal right of “prescriptive easement” to access the land owned by Alpine Springs County Water District and Troy Caldwell because of historical precedent, Heywood explained.
The Alpine Springs County Water District disagrees.
“The district believes that you cannot have prescriptive easements with public entities. So that does not work,” said Tom Skjelstad, general manager for the district.
He said the district is evaluating its options, which includes restraining orders, injunctions, letters or even trespassing charges.
However, the district’s primary goal is to come to some kind of agreement with Alpine Meadows Ski Area on the use of the land and who is liable.
“Our main concern is to make sure the roads remain safe, even though its not our responsibility,” Skjelstad said.
Heywood said the ski area is going to continue avalanche control for the road until “someone physically prevents us from doing it.”
He said the ski area is not worried about going to court because it believes a judge needs to sort out the issues anyway.
Just in case the dispute is not worked out and the ski area stops providing avalanche control again, Tom Christofk, of the Placer County Office of Emergency Services, brought county personnel together Tuesday to formulate a plan for closing Alpine Meadows Road.
“There was snowfall, frankly. At the beginning of the day, it was clear we need to put operations into place.
“It was no big deal other than making sure everyone was playing on the same sheet of music,” he said.
The plan sets out when the road would be closed, using information from the U.S. Forest Service, how it would be closed and alternative routes for homeowners in the Alpine Meadows valley.
Whitelaw said the fire department has a plan to deal with an actual avalanche, but realized there was no action plan for when the county would close the road.
“I’m real pleased. I wish we could’ve done it a little sooner,” Whitelaw said.
Alpine Meadows homeowner Gary Allan said it is “ludicrous” that there was not a county plan or even temporary avalanche agreements in place sooner.
“I think all the parties are negligent and have compromised public safety,” Allan said.
“They’ve left us to a situation where there is no protection.”
He criticized the ski area for terminating its agreements with Caldwell and the Alpine Springs County Water District just as winter began, calling it “a blatant disregard for public safety.”
While neither the county nor the ski area has taken responsibility for the safety of the homeowners, Allan said he felt like “a sitting duck” when there was no avalanche control on Alpine Meadows Road.
A county plan for road closures and this season’s start of the avalanche control on the road is “long, long overdue,” he said.
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