The Language of Snow 

Summer wildfires change winter's message

F or people with a passion for wintertime sports, the first thought when seeing a field of clean, white snow may be to get into that pretty fluff as quick as possible. But anyone who studies snow conditions created by those undulating fields of white will be quick to caution about dangers hidden beneath. This winter, especially, the risks for outdoor enthusiasts are higher due to the number of wildfires that burned throughout the summer.

The winter environment has a language all its own. The Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Web site has an entire glossary of terms dedicated to defining snow and snow conditions. Topping the alphabetical list is "anchors." With so many wildfires having burned hillsides bare, anchors that would usually hold the snow in place are gone. Once the snow falls, the signs of wildfire are covered but the risks are doubled.

"The anchors—the trees—have been removed and that affects the snow pack," said Kirk Bachman, a guide and owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides.

Avalanches are a natural phenomenon caused by specific factors. Typical avalanche factors include slope incline, qualities, quantities and types of snow and, finally, the weather. Skiers may see a lovely, open space but can't see the threat of the burned slope underneath and the lack of trees make these areas more prone to avalanche.

"The [burned] slopes are now open [space]. People see that open space and want to go hit the powder," said Bachman.

This can be especially dangerous at ski resorts. If resorts have closed areas, it's because they have not stabilized the snow and skiers are at risk if they take those runs. During the 2007-08 ski season in particular, skiers would be wise to respect closed areas. Wildfires burned around Challis, Cascade, McCall, Yellow Pine, Ketchum and Grangeville this past summer. Ski resorts close to these areas, especially Sun Valley, are places to take caution.

The backcountry, however, is tracked by avalanche centers and the advisories they offer are essential for anyone heading further afield in Idaho this winter.

"The backcountry is something we don't open and close. It's left to people to make their decisions to go out or not," said Janet Kellam, director of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center. "We have seen good response to the [avalanche] warnings."

Bachman has been leading winter trips in the Sawtooths since 1985. He knows snow. More importantly, he understands the factors that add up to risky circumstances in the wilderness and encourages adventurers to get to know the risks associated with recreating in areas that may be prone to avalanche.

"You have to use a systematic decision-making criteria. It [starts] with weather. What's the weather doing? What's the snow pack? What's the terrain? What would I be looking for? Break it down into elements. Answering those questions is how you start making decisions," said Bachman.

Contributing to the standard avalanche criteria of weather, snow pack and terrain are the fires. Areas that burned are more at risk for avalanche and snow-goers need to know where the fires burned during the summer to prepare and predict what they will come up against.

"What we teach is, No. 1, the slope has to be steep enough to avalanche ... approximately 30 degrees or steeper, like black diamond ski runs," said Kellam, "[Second, you need to] know avalanche terrain and unstable snow pack. And [third], you need a trigger. Humans or weather can be the trigger."

Triggering an avalanche is the last thing most winter adventurers want to experience, but sometimes the thrill of the ride overcomes common sense. Bachman knows that the working masses who also have a passion for the outdoors tend to have blinders on when it comes to completing a planned trip.

"There are behaviors where people say, 'I'm a weekend warrior, and we're going.' You have to know when to go and when not to go, where to be and where not to be," said Bachman.

Adventurers need to double their vigilance in overcoming their desire to recreate. Wildfires compound the risk those people take to play in an already precarious winter environment. Many burned slopes have lost the dense timber that kept skiers off of runs or helped to anchor the snow pack. The new accessibility of these slopes makes them prime avalanche terrain and skiers need to be on the lookout for signs of avalanche conditions.

The most common signs of danger are signs of a recent avalanche (slides), cracking in the snow, collapsing snow pack, heavy snowfall, strong winds and increasing temperatures. Mother Nature will be giving clear signals of avalanche danger, but it is up to riders to look for the signs and heed the warning. Even for experienced players, unknowns can quickly ruin a weekend trip.

But city hall employee David Gordon, a former avalanche forecaster himself, is bullish about about burning.

"The slopes [usually] have timber, eventually these trees will come down and then we'll have nice open slopes," said Gordon. "There's been a lot of fire in past seasons up by McCall and they've got great, open slopes now."

An avalanche is not the only way wildfires will affect the conditions on a run. Heavy deadfall beneath the snow is also a real danger. Burned trees may look stable from a distance, but they are obviously not fixed. Fallen trees hidden by the snow will be at a range of arm- and leg-breaking heights.

Avalanche training prepares people to recognize an unstable environment and helps in the development of decision-making skills.

"We work on developing peoples' decision making skills; getting people familiar with the human behavior phenomenon of ignoring the signs," said Bachman. "They get scripted in terms of why they're out there, they get blinders on."

To help people make good decisions in the face of their determination to complete a trip, Bachman uses the stoplight analogy.

"There are times when it's a green light, go. Yellow light, use caution. Or red light, you have to stop," said Bachman.

"You can't just base your decision on one condition. In studies of all the fatalities there were at least three warning signs," said Kellam.

Nature communicates, but nature can also quickly and unexpectedly change her mind. Conditions can rapidly change and watching and listening for changes in the environment is vital. The light may be green early in the day, at the bottom of the mountain, but as participants gain elevation or as weather changes, the light may change to yellow or red.

Skiers need to prepare well, be constantly vigilant, recognize the signs, and use clear decision-making skills to keep any trip into the snow fun and safe. Prepare, predict, and pay attention ... and, of course, enjoy the snow.

Check REI.com for avalanche workshops and training. For Boise State Outdoor Recreation go to: Rec.BoiseState.Edu/outdoor/education/safety.cfm. For more Idaho Avalanche Centers information, visit Avalanche.org.

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