Placer County examines Alpine Meadows avalanche threat
ALPINE MEADOWS – Noticeably absent from the past year’s debate of how to protect Alpine Meadows homes from avalanche threats, Placer County is now forming a committee to look at the issue.
“We decided to take a really honest look at it,” said 5th District Supervisor Rex Bloomfield.
He said the county is trying to bring together stakeholders to look at various alternatives, including a snow fence, bringing avalanches down with explosives and even a buy-out of some of the homes in avalanche paths.
“We’re wide open when it comes to how we want to address it,” Bloomfield said. “We don’t know what the best solution is.”
The county’s involvement hushed a debate on the Alpine Springs County Water District board, which was trying to decide whether it should seek $75,000 to study whether a Swiss snow fence would protect homeowners at the base of its greenbelt land.
The district board decided to step back from the fencing idea and see what solutions the committee might propose, said Tom Skjelstad, general manager of Alpine Springs County Water District.
“We’re really stoked. Let’s work with them,” Skjelstad said. “All the parties that weren’t talking are now talking.”
The small district was left to look for solutions to the valley’s avalanche danger, after a liability dispute and a series of wet winters heightened awareness of the issue.
Skjelstad said it is a big issue for the district to take on and one that needs more involvement from the county.
“Rex was really listening to the people, too, so we’re pleased,” Skjelstad said.
The avalanche hazard along Alpine Meadows Road is controlled by Placer County, which contracts with Alpine Meadows Ski Area to keep the road clear of avalanche hazards.
The ski area will temporarily close the road and blast the unstable slopes in order to bring down dangerous snowpacks.
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.
A year ago, Placer County first took a hands-off approach, saying it was an issue between the ski area and the owners of two avalanche slide paths, Troy Caldwell and the Alpine Springs County Water District. As winter weather worsened in January 1999, the county participated in an emergency meeting to try to broker a solution for avalanche control of the road.
The ski area continued avalanche control last season, with the expectation that a new contract with the county would be made.
That contract was approved in October.
“The avalanche control program is the same as it always was. The program is not intended to protect the homes and I just wanted the world to know that in a legal document,” said Larry Heywood, director of mountain operations for Alpine Meadows Ski Area.
Until recently, Placer County officials were not looking for solutions for the homeowners, some of whom say the county should take responsibility because it approved the construction of their homes.
“From the Department of Public Works standpoint, my responsibility is to keep the road open,” Tim Hackworth, of the Public Works Department, said this week. “Because of Supervisor Bloomfield, we will try to look at the avalanche issue from a more global perspective.”
Bloomfield said the county did not want to become involved in the avalanche issue until the contract between the ski area and the county was finalized last fall. Hackworth also noted that the Alpine Springs County Water District was not coming up with any solutions “in a fruitful way.”
“It is kind of good to see that something’s happening,” said Heywood, adding that the Tahoe World’s avalanche series a year ago and pressure from the Alpine Meadows community helped get Bloomfield’s attention.
The committee is composed of Skjelstad, Heywood, Caldwell, Hackworth and officials from the county’s Office of Emergency Services.
At a meeting today, the committee will decide how to involve Alpine homeowners associations.
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