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CDOT drops charges on slide zones to trigger more avalanches, mitigating danger in high country

More snow, mitigation work expected late this week
Posted at 10:09 PM, Mar 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-11 08:11:44-04

SILVER PLUME, Colo. — In a week full of busy days for the Colorado Department of Transportation, Sunday was no different.

Work crews flying in a helicopter fired several explosives onto slide zones near Silver Plume, Vail Pass and Copper Mountain in an attempt to remove dangerous buildups of snow in a controlled fashion.

One of the explosives sent a large slide cascading down the mountainside, uprooting several trees in the process.

"What we're seeing is truly unprecedented," said CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. "There are about 400 avalanche paths in Colorado. On a regular basis, we mitigate about 200 of them."

Lew said in the last week, more than a dozen slides have swept over highways, "burying numerous cars, and closing roadways for hours at a time."

Several people recorded the slides while driving on I-70.

"A week ago, I was within 30 minutes of that avalanche leaving Copper Mountain," said Alex Cooper. "It's nature's powerful, awe-inspiring thing."

While many drivers are frustrated by the lengthy road closures during mitigation work, Cooper is not among them.

"I don't get frustrated with CDOT," he said. "I get frustrated with drivers who don't take the right precautions and don't have the right tires and chains, or understand the risk they're taking."

Earlier in the week, CDOT used howitzers — military artillery — to fire explosive projectiles onto the slide areas.

They have other tools at their disposal as well.

"We have the Gazex system, deployed on Berhoud Pass and Loveland Pass," said Kyle Lester, CDOT's director of highway maintenance. "We also, this year, just deployed our Oval X system, which is a self-contained Gazex system."

Gazex uses compressed gasses to create a concussive blast that triggers an avalanche. The system is triggered remotely.

CDOT's Director of Highway Maintenance Kyle Lester said there are times when they have to hike in on foot and drop five-pound charges onto the pass.

Lester also said the avalanche danger is nearly statewide.

He said Highway 550 is closed, and will remain so for about a week between Ouray and Silverton.

"Right now, on Red Mountain Pass, there's probably close to three miles of debris probably 15 to 30 feet deep across the corridor," he said.

He said they'll try to get it re-opened, but cautioned that more snow is on the way.

"The southwest will be getting hit with the next round — probably another foot or two of snow," Lester said.

The director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said 500 avalanches have been documented in the state over the last nine days.

"We're well over the 2,500 avalanches that we typically document in a year," Ethan Greene said.

When asked about the impact of that danger on Colorado's recreation industry, Green said, "Anytime of year, I think people need to match their recreational goals to the conditions, whether that's thunderstorms in the summer or avalanches in the winter."

He said it's especially important to match them right now because of the unprecedented avalanche conditions.

"That's not to say you shouldn't go to the mountains," he said. "But you should be very careful about what your plans are and where you're going to go."

He said travelers should get current information and give themselves a larger buffer about the uncertainty that we have in the current avalanche conditions.