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Jan

15

2012

Living in the Danger Zone

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Growing mountain communities are building on every available inch, even if that land lies in an avalanche path.  

As the Mountain West grows, developers are slapping up homes and entire neighborhoods in avalanche paths. Here’s what you need to know if you don’t want to be sleeping with an avalanche beacon on.  

By Kate Siber | Photographs by Mark Rikkers

One morning last March, at the end of a freakishly snowy winter, Steven Siig, a Lake Tahoe cinematographer and ski guide, woke up to fresh snow piled against the windows and the faint sound of a bomb going off in the hills above the house.

“About six seconds later the whole house shook like an earthquake,” says Siig. “I knew what it was immediately.” Inspecting the damage, he discovered that a Class IV slide had blown the front door off its hinges, packed the mudroom and garage with snow, and swept all four cars away. “I just closed the door and was like, well, we’re not going out that way,” says Siig. “The house was buried beyond belief.”

When Steven and Melissa Siig bought their Lake Tahoe home seven years ago, it was a steal. A mere quarter mile from Alpine Meadows, the property is perched in a swath of forest overlooking the mountains. There was only one catch: The home sits at the bottom of an avalanche zone. Regular bomb work by the Alpine Meadows ski patrol sends slabs downhill. But after they assessed the terrain and the house’s sturdiness, they bought it anyway—the price was right and they felt they could manage the risk.

Living in steep snowy terrain means living with avalanches, but most mountain dwellers don’t realize that the danger doesn’t cease when they step indoors. Slides don’t often hit homes—the American Avalanche Association estimates avalanche property damage at only $31,000 yearly—but the rare events can be grimly spectacular, moving as fast as 100 miles per hour and carrying hundreds of tons of snow. Despite the dearth of avalanche zoning in mountain communities, experts predict that more homes, roads, and power lines will be hit as towns develop. “There’s increasing potential for more structures to be affected by avalanches than there was 20 or 30 years ago,” says Karl Birkeland, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “The land in a lot of these mountain towns is getting more and more expensive, so there’s a lot of desire to squeeze every last inch.”

Reports of avalanches wiping out towns date to at least the 1600s in the Alps, where municipalities now have strict regulations on building and mitigation. In the U.S. in the late 1800s, slides swept away whole mining villages in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. Since 2000, avalanches have knocked out all hydroelectric power in Juneau, smashed into Jackson Hole’s Bridger Restaurant, Alta’s Peruvian Lodge, and hit homes in Durango, Colorado, Ketchum, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

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“Without an idea of the potential hazards, homes have ended up being built in places that maybe hadn’t ever been known as avalanche paths before, but a set of circumstances arise and an avalanche runs,” says Mark Mueller, executive director of the American Avalanche Association. “Like most things, it takes an incident to get everybody’s awareness up.”

A few communities have established avalanche zoning regulations. Colorado’s San Juan County, Vail, and Aspen instituted zoning as early as the 1970s. More recently, Salt Lake City and Ketchum established guidelines. But unlike in Europe, it’s not yet the norm. Why? Counties that haven’t produced strict zoning or even working guidelines may be discouraged by the potential adverse effect on property values, says Andy Gleason, an avalanche specialist at Durango-based consulting firm Trautner Geotech. But that means many homebuyers are unaware of the potential hazard. “Anytime they build beneath a slope that’s at least 30 degrees, there’s potential for an avalanche, even if there are trees on that slope,” says Gleason. “Avalanches come in return periods just like floods do. It could be a 100-year return period or a 300-year return period.”

Though avalanches rip unpredictably, prospective and current homeowners can take precautions. Check with county offices for avalanche zoning regulations and hire an avalanche specialist (contact the local avalanche forecasting center for referrals) to perform a property study. If necessary, structural engineers can often mitigate the danger with earthen berms, deflecting walls, catchment dams, or even snow fences. Still, there’s no way to erase the risk, and, according to some experts, climate change may only increase it.

“The models that I’ve seen that are predictive for snowpack show that there will be just as much snow, but it will be in a shorter period of time,” says Gleason. “If those models are correct, then we’ll have larger storms and more avalanches.”

With the proper awareness and precautions, however, avalanche danger can be minimized and shouldn’t prevent people from making a home in the mountains. The Siigs are largely comfortable in their house, which they renovated to better withstand slides. In some small way, Steven Siig says, the location adds to the draw of living in the mountains.

From the Winter 2012 issue. 

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