The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 3, JANUARY 1998
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

THE COLORADO AVALANCHE INFORMATION CENTER

By Nick Logan and Knox Williams

Origins

The seed that grew to be the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) was sown in 1967. That was the year the Westwide Avalanche Network was begun by the U.S. Forest Service avalanche project in Fort Collins, Colorado. Art Judson launched the "Westwide" as a data gathering program for purposes of (1) understanding climate and snowpack conditions for hazard assessment and forecasting, and (2) establishing effective and efficient control programs.

In 1973 Judson, as lead forecaster, and Knox Williams founded the Colorado Avalanche Warning Program. Run by the Forest Service research office in Fort Collins, this program was a direct outgrowth of many years of research and made use of the field data coming from about 35 sites around Colorado that had been established by the Westwide. It was also the first forecast center in the U. S., and it used the concept of central forecasting. This concept says that one central office can serve a large area by receiving field data gathered by a network of observers, analyzing the data, and issuing daily messages and warning bulletins as warranted, and it can do so at much lower cost than many local forecast offices, each employing a forecaster and covering its own small area.

Goodbye Forest Service, Hello State of Colorado

This program was very successful, and it thrived as it gained credibility with the public and media. Very soon, similar forecast programs popped up in Washington and Utah. But in 1983, upon reaching its tenth anniversary, a funny thing happened, though it was anything but funny at the time: It lost its funding. In those years, avalanche research in the Forest Service was in trouble and the Avalanche Warning Program was abolished as a first step in dismantling the entire research project.

Feeling like an unwanted orphan, the program shopped itself around and ultimately found a new home in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. This was an extraordinary stroke of good luck, but it came with a large string attached: The State would provide no funding whatsoever. It was up to the staff (unemployed at this time) to find the money to sustain the program. The savior proved to be the Forest Service, which provided a lifesaving grant. Was this the mother of all ironies, or what?

The CAIC: A New Name and New Mission

Upon entering state government, the program adopted a more serviceoriented mission that stressed not only avalanche forecasting but also public education. To reflect its expanded mission, the program was renamed the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Three further political events have shaped the CAIC: (1) In 1987, we moved into the Colorado Geological Survey, a logical move since avalanches are defined by state statute as geologic hazards; (2) in 1992 we entered into a contractual partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation to provide avalanche hazard forecasts for all state and federal highways in Colorado; and (3) in 1995 legislation was passed that formally recognized the CHIC as a state program. We still don't get state funding, but we're no longer an orphan.

Here are a few more things to help you understand us:

O Mission statement: We'll give you two versions. Formally, we say, "The CAIC promotes safety by reducing the impact of avalanches on recreation, industry, and transportation through a program of forecasting and education." To those who generally distrust government, we say-less formally-, "The CAIC doesn't make rules, enforce laws, collect fines, or review, regulate, legislate, control, oversee, withhold, open, or close anything. Instead, our purpose is simply to look out for the safety of people living, working, playing and traveling through Colorado."

O Funding: The CAIC is totally funded by grants and donations. Last year more than 50 federal, state, and local government agencies; corporations; businesses; clubs; foundations; rescue teams; and our recentlyfounded grassroots "Friends" contributed to the costsharing of the CAIC. Plus we collect fees for our avalanche courses, and finally we get huge in-kind support from the National Weather Service, which provides our housing.

O Advisory Committee: An Avalanche Center Advisory Committee (ACAC), with representatives from the major constituency groups that the CAIC serves, provides guidance to keep the Center focused and contacts for additional funding.

Services

Winter backcountry recreation continues to boom in Colorado with more people seeking ever-greater terrain challenges. The Avalanche Center provides these people with messages on mountain weather, snowpack, and avalanche conditions, and provides training. Our goals are increased avalanche awareness, saved lives, minimized property damage, lower snow-removal costs, shorter road closures, more efficient avalanche control, and more efficient snow management. Here's a rundown of our services:

O Forum: The CAIC serves as a data and information exchange forum for ski patrollers, highway personnel, heli-ski guides, etc, and other customers who benefit from the shared knowledge of conditions throughout the mountains. It is our firm belief that we can all do a better job by working together.

O Forecasting: We provide two forecasts daily, one for Colorado's backcountry and one for highways. These go to the public, our observers and highway forecasters via recorded hotline messages, e-mail, fax, Internet web site, and via radio and TV broadcasts. Last year the public made 87,000 calls to our seven hotlines and another 39,000 calls to a computer bulletin board and our web site.

O Warnings: When conditions warrant, we issue avalanche warning bulletins through the National Weather Service, NOAA Colorado Weatherwire and the news media. These notify the public that avalanche conditions have reached a level where triggering an avalanche is a virtual certainty and natural avalanches have become a significant threat in the warning area.

O Education: Aggressive avalanche education is the key to keeping avalanche statistics low, and that's a key part of our mission. In 1983 we did 22 courses and barely reached 1,000 people. Last winter we gave 84 courses that were attended by 3,800 participants.

O CDOT Training: Equally important is our avalanche training for the Colorado Department of Transportation. All CDOT maintenance workers take a rescue refresher annually. Through storms, whiteouts and darkness these are the people
who keep the roads open when, as they say, "the mail must get through." Some of those drivers are exposed to avalanche danger day and night.

O Publications and Videos: We haven't stopped there, though, in our education output. Last year, we published The Snowy Torrents, Volume 4, and in recent years produced two videos, Avalanche Rescue: Not a Second to Waste and Avalanche Rescue Beacons: A Race Against Time. Additionally, we create every 2 years a set of slides on avalanche accidents.

O Accident Investigations: Avalanche accidents are nothing new to the state that leads the nation in avalanche fatalities. When a significant event occurs, the staff is there to investigate and gather data. Much can be learned from these investigations, and the information is used for education and refining rescue methods.

O Avalanche Spokes-Agency: The CAIC is the state spokes-agency for all avalanche matters and is the focal point of avalanche information for sponsors, news media, government, private agencies, researchers and writers.

Operations

The Center is located in the National Weather Service forecast office in Denver. The NWS provides office space and access to all equipment and facilities at no cost to the Center. In turn, all incoming snow and weather data are provided to the NWS forecasters. All in all, it's a great setup except for the fact that it's in an illogical location for an avalanche forecast office-the middle of a big city on the plains.

Four forecasters work out of the Center, but there is only one on duty at any given time. Six additional forecasters work specifically to keep the mountain highways safe. Two are based in Silverton, one in Pagosa Springs, one in Carbondale and two at the Eisenhower Tunnel.

The forecaster in Denver is always prepared for an action-packed, long day. What keeps him so busy? Let's count the ways: He (1) provides daily weather forecasts and other pertinent information to support the outlying highway offices; (2) monitors weather, snowpack, and avalanche conditions and evaluates data from 35 manned field sites, from several data loggers, and from multiple National Weather Service products; (3) makes daily snow stability evaluations and forecasts for all mountain zones; (4) initiates contacts to affected people or agencies as necessary; (5) issues bulletins to the radio, TV, newspaper, and wire services twice daily during high-danger episodes; (6) and maintains three data logs which are archived at the end of the season. It's also his duty to try and find time in there some place for nourishment to keep him alive to do it all over again the next day Phew!

The CAIC is fortunate to have a strong network of volunteer field observers. They transfer their observations and weather data via e-mail, fax and phone-sometimes more than once a day Most consist of ski patrol personnel who are active in their avalanche and weather departments. Others are helicopter and snowcat guides, and volunteers from the public. The Center retains one contract observer located in Gothic.

This input is vital to the forecaster who must come up with an accurate and reliable backcountry hazard evaluation for each mountain area, which can vary significantly from one location to another. Avalanche danger is never too far away when the potential for deep slab instability is almost always present in Colorado. Therefore, the stability evaluation process (art) of combining snowpack and weather data to estimate the current and future avalanche potential is an essential quality of the CAIC forecaster.

We feel it is just as important to lower the danger rating as soon as applicable as it is to raise it when the danger increases. If we don't, the user will lose faith in the forecast and may stop using the service. While the tendency might be to keep the rating high "just in case," this would defeat the purpose of providing the best information from which the backcountry user can base his own decisions. Weekends or holidays should not be a factor to keep the forecast "a little higher" just because more people may be out there.

The Center gets the word out in a timely fashion through public hotlines, by fax and by e-mail. Hotlines are refreshed once each morning; however, a phone can be updated at any time as necessary. A local hotline gets a new message if, for example, significant changes occur during the day and an Avalanche Warning is issued. Warnings are issued twicedaily. A copy of the Public Forecast is faxed to mountaineering shops and radio stations, and it is copied into a slightly modified format to e-mail to the "Friends of the Avalanche Center."

Observers and highway forecasters receive two updates a day. The Observers Forecast is issued by 6:00 am and goes to both observers and highway forecasters. In the afternoon, the Highway Forecast is compiled in a format geared specifically for the mountain roads and this also goes to both groups.

The Future

As with other avalanche forecast centers, funding is a major issue. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has squeaked through some tough times over the years. But, like the Denver Broncos, we've made some great (or at least almost great) comebacks. Recently we have found it necessary to find additional funding sources. Support from the "Friends of the Avalanche Center" has been very encouraging.

Our thrust toward continued and expanded avalanche education will remain paramount in the coming years. It's one of the best ways to promote how both avalanche safety and fun can go hand-in-hand.

One final goal is to educate telephone directory assistance about the difference between the Colorado Avalanche hockey team and the CAIC. If only we had a pile of hockey tickets or team memorabilia to sell to callers ...say, that might just solve the funding problem! Oh yes, did we say we're keeping up with the times by learning how to snowboard? The "dudes" have been very willing to teach us. Now, do they have the patience?

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 3, JANUARY 1998
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA