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South Central Avalanche Safety Tips for Motorists

When Traveling Through the Mountains

  1. Be Prepared with: Good winter tires, chains, supplies, full fuel tank, winter clothing, etc. The first rule of winter survival and comfort is to stay dry.
  2. Obey all Closures
  3. Watch for Signs
    Some highways have warning signs to alert you of avalanche areas. Changeable message signs may describe conditions & restrictions. Highway Advisory Radio reports have more detailed information and are frequently updated.
  4. Notice Your Environment

Watch for changing conditions.
Notice the terrain on either side of the road.

If You See an Avalanche:

  1. Do not attempt to drive through it.
  2. Additional avalanches are likely, STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE
  3. Report it if possible from your location
  4. Try to position your vehicle so that snow removal equipment can get by.

If You Are Caught in an Avalanche:

  1. STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE, someone will come to your aid it is very dangerous outside your vehicle.
  2. Turn off your engine, carbon monoxide can kill you, do not smoke.
  3. Stay warm, put on additional clothing as needed.
  4. Report it from your vehicle if possible.

A Perfect World? Unfortunately No.

The art/ science of avalanche forecasting and control is not perfect, no matter how hard we try. It is near impossible to know the exact strength of the snow in every path along a mountain highway and also to know how much additional snowfall, or in the case of these photos, rainfall, will be necessary for an avalanche to occur. All aspects of mountain weather forecasts would need to be perfect, if the forecasting of avalanches and the correct timing of active control are to be perfect.

Active avalanche control work keeps these events to a frequency so that they are not common. Avalanche control also reduces their potential size. In areas that the highway is not directly protected from the avalanche path by expensive snow sheds or barriers, natural avalanches into the road are still possible. Some natural avalanches across open highways will occur on every mountain highway where avalanches can hit the roadway.

Automobile in avlanche debris pile

In this example, the first photo shows that a natural avalanche has blocked the highway. A car ran into the avalanche debris pile. There were no injuries to the occupants and the car was not damaged.

The next photo shows the larger danger. Traffic is now backed up under another avalanche path. People then tend to get out of their cars. The avalanche hazard area extends from the debris pile back to the rear of the second two trucks. Motorists out of their vehicles are much more likely to be killed by a second avalanche than if they remain in their Automobiles in avalanche areavehicles. This is a hazardous, and fortunately infrequent, job for WSDOT and WSP personnel.

You will notice that when the second picture is taken, only those authorities that are necessary to deal with the situation are out of their vehicles. There is also an avalanche watch posted.

Traffic will be immediately shut off at a safe location to prevent more cars from entering the hazard area. Remaining vehicles will be evacuated either by clearing one lane through the debris allowing forward passage (as was done in this case), or they may be escorted back to a safe turn around point. In the most hazardous conditions and locations, people may be evacuated from their cars for the duration of the hazard.