Fires Above Idaho’s Sun Valley Create Avalanche Danger

December 1, 2008

Wildfires that charred thousands of acres near a central Idaho ski resort in 2007 continue to create headaches for avalanche forecasters wary of snow slides on areas burned clear of sagebrush and other vegetation.

The Castle Rock Fire of 2007 forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes and burned to within 50 yards of a $12 million Sun Valley ski lodge atop Bald Mountain.

Despite recent restoration work that’s included putting down mulch and seeding areas with native grasses and shrubs, the scorched areas remain prime avalanche country, said Janet Kellam, the head of Ketchum’s three-person Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center.

Of particular concern are burns just outside Sun Valley’s main ski resort on Bald Mountain, where newly brush-free slopes could lure unsuspecting skiers and boarders to duck under ropes and into harm’s way.

“I am concerned about out-of-bounds Baldy,” Kellam told the Idaho Mountain Express. “Very much so.”

Last January, an unusual series of avalanches here hit residential areas and closed a road for six days. The slides were caused by storms that combined rapid snowfall and fierce winds, a common recipe for high avalanche danger. Several homes suffered extensive damage as snow swept over them.

Although the last person to die in an avalanche near Ketchum was in 2006 when a snowmobiler was buried in the southern Pioneer Mountains, Kellam fears people have been lured into a false sense that the charred backside of Bald Mountain is a safe place to venture with skis or snowboard.

She said numerous skiers and boarders sampled skiable terrain created by the fire in out-of-bounds areas last winter.

“We have quite a bit that goes unseen,” she said. “If people go out-of-bounds, they have to know it’s full-on backcountry.”

So far this year, snowfall has been too sparse to open ski hills in Idaho, with Sun Valley missing a Thanksgiving Day start for the fourth time in 14 years.

But a miserly Mother Nature could also mean hidden dangers on the highest slopes of local mountains. A shallow layer of snowpack has persisted, creating the potential for a weak snowpack that could last through much of the winter.

“Right now, it’s looking like we’re going to have some problems up high,” Kellam said.

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