Avalanches go in the spotlight

Some 750 ski patrollers, scientists and avalanche forecasters will gather in the San Juan Mountains next week to talk without end about snow and avalanches.

The five-day event in Telluride is the International Snow Science Workshop, a biennial conference that is the premier event in North America for the exchange of information about things like depth hoar, velocities of moving snow, and avalanche-hazard mapping.

The workshop makes for an unusual merging of the theoretical and the practical as researchers with Ph.Ds share notes and the platform with ski patrollers, avalanche forecasters and others.

“I can think of no other discipline that allows the unwashed to get up in front of a group on the same footing and explain what they’re doing,” said Don Bachman, ski patrol director at Crested Butte in the 1960s and a research forecaster in the San Juan Avalanche Project in the 1970s.

The first such organized conference was held in 1978 in Banff. Now, it is held every other year, with every third conference in Canada. It was last held in Colorado in 1992, at Breckenridge. Representatives of 16 countries are registered to attend the sold-out event.

Some presentations this year will explore histories of major avalanches, such as those in early 2003 that caused the death of 14 people in two separate cases in the Canadian Rockies. Another paper, by Sam Colbeck, a U.S. Army researcher, explores the growth of surface hoar, which eventually creates weak layers of snow that result in avalanches. This weak layer has claimed the lives of the most backcountry enthusiasts through the years, said Andy Gleason, a Durango-based Ph.D. candidate who reviewed papers for the conference.

Like the conference, Gleason blends both practical and academic. He was an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center assigned to look after three highways in the San Juan Mountains, including U.S. Highway 550 between Durango and Ouray.

“It’s the most avalanche-prone highway in the United States,” Gleason said. “The only one with more is Rogers Pass, in Canada. There are 104 named avalanche paths on Red Mountain Pass that have the ability to reach the highway.”

This year, the conference will feature three people involved in forecasting or controlling avalanches at Red Mountain Pass in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Included will be Noel Peterson, who pioneered the use of artillery to artificially trigger avalanches along highways in the San Juans. Also on hand to give the keynote speech will be Ed LaChapelle, of McCarthy, Alaska. A seminal figure in the study of snow, he was the principal consultant for a ground-breaking avalanche study project in the San Juan Mountains in the early 1970s.

Bachman says Southwest Colorado should expect more quiet than rowdy from the conference. If a ski patrol convention featured one day of presentations and four days of partying, this one will have four days of presentations with just a hint of festivity.

EPA seeks power plant feedback

Durangoans have an opportunity to weigh in on the Desert Rock Project, a massive power plant proposed just south of Shiprock. Next Tues., Oct. 3, the Environmental Protection Agency is hosting a local public hearing on the plant. Local comments will be read into the record.

The $2 billion Desert Rock Project would become the third coal-fired power plant operating in the San Juan Basin. It would be built on the Navajo Nation, roughly 20 miles south of Kirtland, and it is estimated that the plant would generate enough energy for 1.5 million homes. In its recent approval, the EPA boasted that Desert Rock will also be ground-breaking in terms of cleanliness and pollution controls.

However, opponents of Desert Rock and clean-air advocates view the recent EPA approval in a different light. Regardless of the technology, the new power plant would add pollution to the Four Corners area and join longtime polluters, the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, both west of Farmington. In addition, a fourth, coal-fired plant, named the Mustang Project, is also seeking approval to begin construction between Farmington and Grants, N.M.

“I still have serious concerns that the cumulative impact of power plants in this region has not been analyzed,” said Roger Clark, air and energy coordinator for watchdog group the Grand Canyon Trust. “There are times in the San Juan Basin when there are unhealthy conditions that people are already breathing.”

U.S. Congressman John Salazar also took up these concerns and argued that his constituents should be allowed to voice their opinions on the EPA approval. In that spirit, he requested that the agency hold a formal public hearing on the new power plant.

“Any new major source of emissions in Northern New Mexico could have a significant impact on air quality in Southwest Colorado,” Salazar wrote to the EPA. “Many of my constituents have expressed concern about the potential impacts from the project, and I believe my constituents should be allowed the opportunity to comment on the proposed permit at a full EPA public hearing in Colorado.”

In response, the agency scheduled the Oct. 3 public hearing, which will take place at the Iron Horse Inn, 5800 N. Main Ave. Two separate sessions are scheduled, the first from 1-5 p.m. and a second from 6-9 p.m. A second hearing will also take place at the Shiprock High School Auditorium on Oct. 4. Comments can also be sent by email to desertrockairpermit@epa.gov.

Burning returns to the San Juans

Fire season is returning to the Four Corners area. In coming weeks, fire managers hope to conduct several prescribed burns to reduce hazardous fuels in area forests.

Deliberate burning began early this week north of Dolores in an effort to clean up slash on the ground left from the Trail Canyon Timber Sale.  The 1,000-acre burn was ignited by firefighters on the ground using drip torches and was expected to take four to five days to complete. The burn should be a “cool” or low-intensity burn, according to Kevin Joseph, fire management officer for the Dolores Public Lands Office. “The slash is dry and ready to burn but green grass and damp ground will keep this fire low intensity,” he said.

In October, fire managers are hoping to conduct two prescribed burns near Bayfield, and the main objective of both burns is to clean up pine needles, dead branches and other fuels left behind from mechanical thinning. Both burns will be north of Bayfield and relatively small in size.

Prescribed burning serves several purposes including: reducing fuels buildup; improving the health of ponderosa pine stands; enhancing the growth of grasses and forbs; improving deer and elk habitat; and releasing nutrients into the soil.

Fourth local plague case detected

Plague is making a strong showing in La Plata County this year. This week, the San Juan Basin Health Department reported that a 49-year-old local woman had tested positive for plague and is undergoing treatment.  

This is the fourth case in La Plata County this year, making it a record year and the most ever for one year in Colorado. Nationwide, there are an average of 10 to 15 human cases each year. Thirteen rodents and cats in Southwest Colorado have also tested positive for plague this year, and all four local cases involved a family pet. The Health Department cautioned residents that the local plague season extends through at least the end of October. For more information on plague, visit www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/plague.

– compiled by Will Sands and Allen Best