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Avalanche warning issued for Colorado’s mountains

The county is also under Stage 1 fire restrictions, rivers are rising and bears are emerging

Avalanche danger is elevated throughout Colorado's high country this weekend.
Yep, it's May
  • There’s a weekend-long avalanche advisory for every mountain region in the state.
  • Streamflows are expected to increase significantly in the next few days.
  • Eagle County is under Stage 1 fire restrictions – although that’s not entirely to do with terrain conditions.
  • Bears are waking up, and they’re hungry.

The month of May can, and often does, provide a taste of just about everything the Colorado High Country has to offer, and not always in a good way.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has issued an avalanche advisory through the weekend for all of the state’s mountain areas.

“Warm daytime temperatures and little to no overnight freeze will create dangerous avalanche conditions this weekend,” the center’s website states. “Destructively large natural and triggered avalanches will become likely through the day. … Backcountry travel this weekend will require conservative decision-making, cautious route-finding and careful snowpack and terrain evaluation.”

This isn’t unusual. A warm spell in the spring frequently creates similar conditions.

Streams are rising

But warm weather also accelerates snowmelt in the higher elevations. That water ends up in streams. Too much snowmelt too fast can lead to rapid increases in stream levels. That, in turn, can prompt flooding.

That snowmelt has come quickly over the past several days.

Diane Johnson, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager, usually puts together graphs of snowpack once a week or so. Johnson put together a new graph on Friday for this story. She was surprised by what she saw.

The district measures snowpack in “snow water equivalent.” That number dropped by 4 inches between April 26 and May 1. That’s a dramatic drop.

The district measures snow water equivalent at Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain (the closest site to Vail Pass) and Fremont Pass, (the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River).

All appear to have peaked on April 25.

Johnson said people in low-lying areas of East Vail need to keep an eye on the Copper Mountain site, which also lost a good bit of water in the past week.

Johnson noted that the Vail and Copper Mountain sites have peaked for the season right about on the historic schedule. But, she added, the Fremont Pass site appears to have peaked a couple of weeks early.

Given current weather forecasts, it doesn’t look like there will be any late storms coming to rebuild the currently lost snowpack.

Flood danger this time of year depends largely on how quickly the snow melts. That can also be sobering news for the state of the valley’s water supplies into the summer and fall.

Fire restrictions

In addition to the weak and melting snowpack, Eagle County is also under Stage 1 fire restrictions.

Birch Barron, Eagle County emergency manager, said those restrictions are due in large part to caution on the part of the valley’s first responders. Still, there’s already been a recent small fire near Eagle, and this week saw a significant fire erupt near Hayden, west of Steamboat Springs.

Barron said the idea is to reduce potential risks for first responders. All of those agencies have been taxed by responding to the county’s COVID-19 virus outbreak.

“We don’t want to respond to (incidents) unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Barron said.

Emergency response requires police, firefighters and paramedics to work in close quarters with each other and those they help. That increases the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

An outbreak in an agency could incapacitate a “huge percentage” of limited staff, Barron said.

Those responses range from backcountry missions to swift water rescues.

Tracy LeClair, Eagle River Fire Protection District’s community risk manager and public information officer, said keeping distant from co-workers limits the opportunity for training. Putting three or four people into a boat for a water rescue also increases the chances of COVID-19 exposure.

Even without a global pandemic, there’s plenty going on in May.

LeClair recalled a day a year or two ago when Eagle County was under a winter storm warning and a Red Flag wildfire conditions warning on the same day.

Besides the weather, bears are starting to emerge from their winter slumber. The town of Vail a few days ago issued a warning for residents to make sure their bear precautions are in place.

As if all that isn’t enough, ticks are out, too.

Be careful out there, folks.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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