Backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowmobile riders and hikers will have a new place to look for avalanche information. The Flathead National Forest has ended its partnership with the Glacier Country Avalanche Center, and will present avalanche advisories and education in its new incarnation as the Flathead Avalanche Center.
The Flathead National Forest says in a press release that it’s reorganizing its avalanche program in order to improve the program in response to public feedback.
Glacier Country Avalanche Center board member Brad Lamson said GCAC hosted the Forest Services’ Avalanche Advisories through its website, and raised funds for Forest Service avalanche programs. He said these programs weren’t measuring up to national guidelines.
“After requesting these things for so long and not getting anywhere, GCAC ran out of funds to support the Forest Service over the past two years, and the Forest decided on their own this year to just strike out in the spring, and just do their own avalanche website and advisories,” Lamson said with the change the GCAC is also reorganizing; looking at a name change, new board of directors, and an increased focus on public outreach and participation.
He said they are interested in working with the Forest Service again, “right now change is on the cusp, and it’s a good thing, and there’s a lot of people within the Forest and the general community that are working towards this,” Lamson said, “and I’m really confident that sometime in the next couple of years, this is going to work out for the benefit of the community and winter recreation users and avalanche information.”
The Flathead National Forest had been releasing avalanche advisories two times a week through the GCAC website. Forest Recreation Program leader Becky Smith-Powell said the Flathead Avalanche Center is a Type Three Center producing three advisories a week, as well as education outreach and classroom programs.
“There’s not a Director, it’s just like a coordinator that helps do the scheduling,” Smith-Powell said, “if we moved to a level Two Center, then we would be having a director, and having 5 to 7 days a week advisories, and more education outreach, or, maybe partnering with other groups, and our budget allows us to be a Type Three.”
Snow and Avalanche Specialist Tony Willits with the Flathead National Forest said the advisories will come out Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.
“We do an advisory that gives them a weather update, gives them the avalanche hazard as we see it from what we’ve gleaned from observations, and we give them a trend of what’s to be expected in the coming days,” Willits said.
He said they physically head into the hills and dig a snow pit to assess the snow structure, “we’re always looking for what that weak layer is, and so that pit obviously helps us when we start digging that pit and looking at the face of the pit and looking at the snow structure within the pit, then we decide- we kind of get some ideas of what’s going to happen next, and then our stress tests confirm that.”
Willits said they collect field information the day before, add those observations to data from SNOTEL sites, Kootenai National Forest, and Glacier National Park to come up with the avalanche advisory. He said this winter they will continue avalanche preparedness classes with class time for both motorized and non-motorized backcountry users.
“The classes themselves are geared to give a perspective on what the snow science is, what creates an avalanche, things they have to think of to travel in the backcountry safely,” Willit said the classes also include a field day, “when we get into the field we talk about the snow pits, and talk about snow structure and things like that to give them an idea what’s going on in the snow.”
Smith-Powell says the new website is at flathead-avalanche-dot-org.
“The website’s going to look different and we hope to have observations so people can post observations, and those observations will be able to be tracked so that people can look and see who put it in, and where it was,” Smith-Powell said their goal is to make the website interactive with photos and video, and the Flathead Avalanche Center will also be connecting with people through Twitter.
The phone number to call for the avalanche advisories remains the same at 257-8402. Advisories are slated to start the week after Christmas, through the first week of April – depending on the weather.
Lamson says what happens next for the Glacier Country Avalanche Center is still unclear, but he plans to meet with Forest Service representatives soon to see how the two entities could work together in the future.