It turns out the risk of avalanches isn’t just restricted to the high country.
With snow pummeling most areas of Southwest Colorado, Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, is reminding residents to be mindful of avalanche danger – even in and around Durango.
“Anytime you get this depth and weight of snow, people need to be conscious of the fact it can slide,” Knowlton said. “And it can be pretty detrimental to the people below it.”
Longtime residents may recall at least two in-town avalanches that have caught unsuspecting people in their paths of destruction.
In 2008, a skier was buried in an avalanche while coming down the side of Smelter Mountain that faces town. The skier and his skiing partner had rescue beacons, which were used to locate the victim in the debris pile. The man was found with his hand poking out of the snow and his head buried about a foot under the snow. He was unconscious but breathing. He was taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center in good condition, reportedly with an injured leg and hip.
On Christmas Day 1988, two climbers were buried in a snowslide they triggered while on a hillside on the east side of Florida Road, about a block south of the roundabout near Chapman Hill. They were buried for seven hours before a couple walking by heard their cries for help and rescued them.
Knowlton said there are areas of La Plata County prone to avalanche danger, including La Plata Canyon, as well as a section of County Road 243 leading to Lemon Reservoir that has two or three avalanche chutes that in the past have closed the road.
But any area with a steep slope and deep snow can slide, Knowlton said.
Knowlton said the risk to structures throughout the county is rather small. He said anytime a new building is built, a variety of risks are analyzed in the permitting process.
“I can remember one time someone wanted to build a cabin on a mining claim (in La Plata Canyon) dead smack in the middle of a huge avalanche path,” Knowlton said. “He thought it was strange there were no trees there, but he just didn’t know what it was.”
Knowlton also said residents should be aware snow can slide off rooftops, and because the weight of the snow is so heavy, it can easily bury someone and pose a serious risk.
“It’s not all fluffy, puffy and beautiful in many respects,” he said. “There’s some really serious weight issues with this snowpack.”
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said there can be an added risk when areas that don’t usually receive much snow, do receive heavy snowfall.
“That’s when you can see avalanches in places where you don’t typically see them,” he said.