The Colorado Avalanche Information Center marks 50 years of forecasting snowslides in Colorado
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has been in operation for a half century.
Many of the agency's employees work remotely, near the mountains where they conduct their fieldwork. Matt Huber is the CAIC’s Southern Mountains Highway Forecaster.
He spends a lot of time on skis monitoring snow conditions on the ground. He also drives thousands of miles traversing the southeast San Juan Mountains, monitoring avalanche conditions on the highways during the snow season.
On an early morning in mid-November, Huber drove from his homebase in Creede to Lake City to check snow conditions on Slumgullion Pass. He said on that day, conditions were “pretty dry.”
Standing next to his work truck, he provided an inventory of the gear he keeps in the vehicle.
“Radios, cellphones, I keep my computer in here,” Huber said. “Basically, it’s home. I have a paco pad [and] a sleeping bag. I sleep in the CDOT top shop on Wolf Creek Pass a fair bit when it is snowing. Shovels for myself. Ski gear and all my skis.”
CAIC Deputy Director Brian Lazar said highway forecasters are responsible for specific highways, such as a portion of I-70 or Monarch Pass. He said the center has identified stretches along highways that are avalanche paths, which could threaten roadways.
“These forecasters are making essentially slope-scale avalanche forecasts, so they are monitoring conditions,” Lazar said. “Then what we do is in concert with the Colorado Department of Transportation, we provide the avalanche forecasts for these stretches of highway, and then we recommend where and when to do avalanche mitigation work.”
The center also has backcountry forecasters who report avalanche conditions for Colorado’s Northern, Central, and Southern Mountains.
Lazar said a lot has changed for the agency in the past 50 years.
“From the days of putting in like essentially ticker tapes to transmit the avalanche forecast, to eventually moving to recording the avalanche forecast for just regions,” he said. “We did that just with hotlines, old-school answering machines where you'd call up and listen to someone deliver the avalanche forecast by listening to their voice message.”
Lazar said the rise of the internet was another game changer.
“As the internet came on the scene and became more ubiquitous, we moved to websites and mobile applications to deliver that public safety information,” he said.
The CAIC was founded in 1973. Back then, it was called the Colorado Avalanche Warning Service. Lazar said it was the first program in the U.S. to issue public avalanche forecasts.
“It was originally part of the U.S. Forest Service operations based in Fort Collins,” he said. “It did move into Colorado state government in the early 80’s and the organization has just expanded its personnel and its public safety outreach throughout the course of those decades.”
In 2019, the state saw a record avalanche season. Hinsdale County Commissioner Kristy Borcehers recalled what happened in her remote, mountainous community.
“On a morning in March, we had more than 100 avalanches come down, including one that had people inside, and there was also a second one that hit a house within the city limits of Lake City,” she said.
The former Hinsdale County Sheriff and his two daughters survived the avalanche that destroyed their home.
Borchers said the Colorado Avalanche Information Center was vital during this time.
“They helped us with mapping and where the avalanches had run,” she said. “They helped with identifying what area of risk each specific spot had. They also really helped us with a lot of education. The expertise that CAIC brings to a small county like ours is invaluable.”
Lazar said CAIC personnel spend a lot of time digging.
“The only real way to kind of track what’s going on in the snowpack structure underneath the surface is to dig down and take a look at a cross-section,” he said. “We look at cross-sections to see how the layering of snowpack is developing over time, which very much drives how susceptible it is to producing avalanches.”
Lazar said the center is a small organization with about 30 employees in a large, mountainous state, so it uses outside input.
“We also rely on information that is sent in to use from both professional operations such as ski areas, plow drivers, [and] guiding services, and we do rely on crowdsourcing,” he said.
The avalanche center is a public resource. People can reach out to the CAIC to report what they see. Lazar said this information helps improve avalanche forecasts.
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