Vail employees get avalanche ready
March 19, 2014
VAIL — Most people imagine avalanches as happening on steep slopes in backcountry terrain — not near golf course properties or off your roof onto your driveway.
It's not uncommon for slides to happen or come in-town, and town of Vail employees need to be ready, said Vail Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike McGee.
"In the last 30 years within our valley, we've had houses hit, in the '70s there were seven cars buried on the interstate and there was a fatality where someone was shoveling snow and it fell off their roof and hit them," he said.
McGee and other first responders said they are getting prepared for spring and all the natural dangers that the thaw in the mountains can bring — that includes in-town avalanches, mudslides and tumbling rocks.
"If we get another big storm, with the weather having been so warm, it could definitely trigger some slides," said McGee.
Training the town
That's why McGee and about 40 other town employees from the fire department, police department, public works, recreation district and more got some avalanche awareness training from instructor Mike Duffy on Wednesday. Duffy, a local avalanche instructor, covered the basics of recognizing avalanche risks, equipment, what to do if you're caught in one and rescue tactics.
"We want to keep these guys safe and help them know what not to do," McGee said. "If all someone gets out of this is that there's a spot they shouldn't park their car because of avalanche risk, it's done its job."
Duffy, who teaches courses all over the country, said this is the first course he's taught for a town.
"These guys are setting the benchmark," he said. "It's something they need to know, because it does happen. We're teaching them the basics and then teaching them how to apply it."
To prove his point that municipalities need to be avy educated, Duffy showed the group statistics of avalanche deaths by state — even North Dakota logged a fatality, the result of snow sliding off a roof, he said.
In-town avalanche situations happen often enough, according to town employees — just not the way many people might think.
Rick Gregory, of the town's streets department, said that every few years when the conditions are right, slides make their way into the streets, especially in East Vail and around the golf course.
"There was one slide that completely blocked the road," he said. "We definitely see it more when there's a lot of snowfall in a small period of time and when it's warming up. The layers start melting and weakening, and it all starts becoming slushy."
Slides are also common around Booth Falls and Davos, McGee said, and he adds that it isn't unheard of for snow to hit residences and buildings.
"I've been clocking these for 40 years, and they don't slide every year, but when the situation is right …" he said.
Colorado is avalanche country
Duffy encouraged the employees to know the protocol for rescue situations and gave them tips as responders to stay safe on scene.
"Three years ago, we had Mike Duffy come and give a class on personal avalanche safety for all town employees. We had planned this one even before the (recent) East Vail avalanches made it more relevant," McGee said. "We haven't developed an avalanche response protocol, although we do have one for flooding. It's all part of the goal of keeping employees safe."
It's a particularly relevant point, considering that the town's backyard is one of the most avalanche-prone areas in the entire country. This past year, Colorado had 46 percent of all avalanche fatalities in the country, Duffy said.
"Being in a community like this, we're at avalanche central among the whole world. We're going to see some weird weather and people skiing lines we never thought they would right above neighborhoods — we're going to see some weird things happen," he warned.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.