Thursday, January 3, 2019

Chute safety: Preparing for avalanche season

By Andrea E. Petrich

The rain was pouring down along SR 20 in Newhalem and the only place you could see patchy snow was high on the mountains towering over the small Whatcom County town on the day I rolled in for Highway Avalanche Search and Rescue (HAVSAR) Training this past December.

While there wasn't snow there, plenty had already fallen in the mountains. So much – along with some rain – that backcountry avalanche warnings were already in place. That risk had reached some of our highways too. The SR 20 North Cascades Highway closed for the season on Nov. 27, when its avalanche chutes became unsafe for crews to plow the area.

At the HAVSAR training, about 30 of us gathered in the holiday-decorated hall on the Seattle City Light campus. Our group consisted of our avalanche and maintenance staff, Seattle City Light first responders, Border Patrol, Northwest Avalanche Center forecasters, North Cascades National Park rangers and members of the Whatcom County Sherriff's team – all people who would respond and be part of highway clearing efforts if an avalanche slides across SR 20.
First responders from agencies around Whatcom and Skagit counties gather for avalanche training

One of our avalanche forecast and control specialists, Harlan Sheppard, refreshed us on types of avalanches, what to look for in hazard areas and what can trigger one. We saw fresh pictures of avalanche chutes along open stretches of our highways and talked about risk reduction strategies. This includes proper training, low-cost markers along highways (you may have seen red-wrapped poles on US 2 indicating a no-stop zone for crews) and adding weather stations to increase accurate forecasting.
Harlan Sheppard, a member of our agency's avalanche team, leads the Highway Avalanche Search and Rescue Training

Once we were done in the classroom, everyone bundled up in their gear to head outside for beacon, probing and shoveling practice. This trains first responders how to locate someone buried in an avalanche as well as the best way to rescue them while still keeping yourself and other first responders safe. With little snow, we did the best we could and the participants kept the scenario as real as possible while probing for a paper bag in a downpour.
Crews from multiple agencies practice beacon use during avalanche training

Our crews always try to forecast avalanche risk early and bring down risky chutes safely, but there are times when the mountain has its own ideas and slides come down unexpectedly. When that happens, we work quickly to make sure everyone in the area is safe while being careful to assess the risk. Often it's not just one avalanche you'll see, but secondary ones that could trap emergency responders if we aren't careful. Sometimes that means waiting a day or two before it's safe for crews to move equipment in to clear a highway.

The risk is also why we hold HAVSAR training every year – we want to keep our skills sharp and also ensure as many first responders as possible have a chance to attend.

What's that mean for you? It's vital that anyone who travels on mountains passes in the winter needs to be prepared. Extreme weather events can happen with little warning and delays and closures could mean long waits. Always plan to bring enough supplies (medication, contacts, socks, etc.) to get by in case of unexpected closures. And, especially during storms or changing weather, stay informed about conditions as you travel. You can do that by calling 511, downloading our mobile app, following regional social media accounts or checking our travel alerts page. (Never use electronic devices when behind the wheel, have a passenger check or wait until you can pull over to a safe spot).
Attendees at our HAVSAR training practice shoveling technique during avalanche rescue training in Newhalem

With new shovels and probes and fresh batteries in our beacons, this group of first responders is equipped, trained and ready for winter along SR 20. Help them help you by making sure you're also prepared anytime you travel across a pass.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You can't have a HAVSAR class in the city, without snow!
Next time have them come up here to US2.

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