Old methods prevail in avalanche prevention
ALPINE MEADOWS – Alpine Meadows Ski Area and Placer County signed a new contract to continue the avalanche control program that the ski resort has been providing for the county road since 1972.
“It is the best program for the road and gives some residual protection for the homes,” said Larry Heywood, director of mountain operations for the ski area.
However, the resort’s method of closing the road and blasting potential avalanches does not guarantee protection for the homes along the road, creating a liability issue that prompted the ski area to temporarily stop avalanche control along the road last year. Since then, Placer County, the ski area, property owner Troy Caldwell and the Alpine Springs County Water District have been negotiating new contracts to address liability issues further.
“I think this whole program got sidetracked for a year or two Public policy requires we keep this excellent program in place even though it’s not foolproof,” said Placer County Counsel Anthony LaBouff at a county Board of Supervisors meeting in Tahoe City last week.
The avalanche control program essentially has not changed since it began in 1961, shortly after Alpine Meadows Ski Area was developed in the 50s.
In 1972, the county contracted with the ski area to provide avalanche control for a small compensation, Heywood said.
Ski area staff monitor the snowpack and do avalanche control with artillery and hand charges when they believe there is potential for avalanches to come down on the road.
“There’s some science to this,” Heywood told the supervisors, noting that they monitor the snow conditions, water in the snow, wind speed and other factors.
The ski area will notify the sheriff’s department and the residents before it closes Alpine Meadows Road for control.
Then, it will blast potential avalanches by either using artillery from a gun shed in the subdivision or by throwing hand grenades from the top of the slope, accessed by Squaw Valley’s KT-22 chair lift.
“The goal is to have it stop short of the road. If it hits the road, then we clean it up,” Heywood said. “This whole program has been extremely reliable and safe, with no injuries or fatalities.”
But the ski area cannot protect fixed objects along the road, including homes or the garages that have been built since the area was zoned for avalanche danger, he said.
“The program can only reliably protect the road,” Heywood said.
Placer County Public Works’ Tim Hackworth said it was good for the county to continue its contract with Alpine Meadows.
“I think we have a pretty comprehensive program,” Hackworth said.
The contract pays the ski area $500 for each avalanche control mission, with a cap of $5,000 in one year.
Heywood said the actual costs are $750 to $1,000 per mission and don’t include the cost of storing explosives or training personnel.
In drought years, the ski area might blast avalanches seven or eight times; in big years, about 30 times. The average is about 20 times, he said.
Alpine Meadows Ski Area and the Alpine Springs County Water District also recently signed a new agreement to allow ski area personnel to access the district’s land above the road, according to Tom Skjelstad, general manager of the district.
“All of us feel pretty good going into this season,” Skjelstad said.
The Alpine Springs County Water District Board of Directors still face the decision of whether to seek a study of other avalanche control methods such as a snow fence along the road.
Currently, the district is providing information to valley residents and homeowners associations; the board probably won’t make a decision until December, he said.
The county is also “committed to looking to long-term solutions,” according to a letter LaBouff wrote to the Bear Creek Association, a homeowners group in Alpine Meadows.
At the supervisors’ meeting Oct. 19, LaBouff said, “There are longterm issues that need to be resolved. The consequences of development in the 60s, 70s and even more recently need to be looked at.”
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