Meet and Greet: Idaho Transportation Department Avalanche Center

Avalanche in March 2014 which took 10 days to clean up.

Avalanche in March 2014 which took 10 days to clean up.

At some point or another, we’ve all had our travel plans affected by road closures due to avalanche concerns.  Within the Boise forecast area, those slated with making these decisions work for the Idaho Department of Transportation (ITD) Avalanche Center in Lowman, Idaho. The National Weather Service works closely with this office, providing up to date weather conditions for three locations highly susceptible to large natural avalanches (versus human-triggered avalanches).  We thought it would be fun to meet and greet the two permanent Avalanche Center employees, Bill Nicholson and Chantel Astorga, for some hands-on training in how their operations are conducted.

NWS forecasters Jay Breidenbach (green), Elizabeth Padian (red), Korri Anderson (grey), and Aviva Braun (green) gather for a photo with ITD Avalanche employees Bill Nicholson (Blue) and Chantel Astorga (Pink). Excitement was high after digging a snow pit on February 26th as part of the monthly snowpack evaluation process.

NWS: Good morning! Could you introduce your office to our readers?

Avalanche: Good morning! Well, our program began about 8 years ago after realizing the need for avalanche forecasters for Highway 21, in the Boise forecast area, and Highway 12, in the Missoula forecast area. These roads had been hit by avalanches before and had put many, including the ITD maintenance staff, in danger. We now provide avalanche susceptibility ratings to the ITD staff and close down roads when avalanche dangers are high. Both of us come from ski patrol backgrounds and have a lot of experience with avalanches and understand their dynamics greatly.

NWS: How do you maintain situational awareness of current avalanche conditions?

Avalanche: We go out into the mountains (on our skis!) to evaluate the strength of the snowpack every day! We are skiers at heart for sure.  Because we are out there every day, we have an idea of how much stress the snowpack can take.  We always go in pairs for safety’s sake. When conditions become critical, we go out in our trucks. Those are the days we are on the phone with your office the most!

NWS: What weather phenomena have the greatest impacts on avalanche conditions?

Avalanche: The biggest impacts to avalanche conditions are heat – the first warm day after we’ve been having precipitation is a really big stress, the first prolonged thaw– beginning at the start of that melting period until the water has made it all the way down to the bottom of the snowpack, and finally, during big precipitation events. In very general terms, big precipitation events are when we have more than an inch of water weight (as snow) – that’s when we have to do something. An inch of water weight as rain is a really big problem! But that’s rare here, luckily. The days we call your office frequently are when the rain-snow line is at a level that we’re not quite comfortable with. If the snow level stays at 5500 feet, we’re okay, but if it goes to 5800 feet that would really cause some issues.  Another factor that can greatly influence avalanche danger is wind, but in this area, we rarely get wind-driven avalanches. Every canyon has its own personality; we have gotten to know and understand this canyon pretty well, therefore, we can predict how it’ll behave with each incoming storm.

NWS: How many avalanches do we average per year here on Highway 21?

Avalanche: We average 30 to 40 avalanches per year, and these are the large, destructive kinds. We’ll have days where just everything goes. On those days, the highway is closed.

NWS: How does the NWS help your office achieve its goals?

Avalanche: In 2000, one of the foremost scientists based out of the avalanche center in Calgary, Canada, estimated that with an aggressive avalanche program, the number of road closures could be limited to 30 days per year.  Our current average is 15 days!  Every day, NWS provides forecasts for us so that we can be up to date and ready for incoming changes to the weather – whether it is warmth, rain, or snow.  Without your forecasts, the roads would be closed all of the time!  When we do decide to close the road, we try to give people at least 8 hours warning.  You guys make that possible because we’ll see the next system coming in your forecasts.  However, there are outliers to the 15-day road closure average.  For example, two years ago in March 2014, we had that massive avalanche cycle that took 10 days to clean up!

NWS:  How does your team conduct its monthly snowpack stress tests?

Avalanche:  Once a month, we do an evaluation of the snowpack within the same location at Banner Summit (7200 feet). We do this to see where the snowpack layers are located. As you know, without layers, there would be no avalanche danger. We dig a (new) pit in the snow each month with a smooth wall in which we can pick out the layers. When we think the snowpack is weak, we dig many pits to evaluate the spatial variability. Within the pit, we take the temperature every 10 cm to see if there is a gradient since that gradient drives changes in the snow.  A temperature gradient increases the snowpack weakness; without a temperature gradient, the snowpack is stronger. Another test we do is a hand hardness test which relates directly to strength. However, we try to evaluate the snowpack in a general sense and not get too caught up in the specifics of each layer because sometimes the specifics can just be distractions. The end goal is to evaluate whether the snowpack can handle 1 or 2 inches of water – what will its breaking point be?. The weight of precipitation is what stresses the foundation of the whole snowpack.  During a big event, snow density can change rapidly. Snowpacks are a super dynamic system and change constantly, much like weather! The thing is, we begin keeping track of weather conditions in detail November 1st, so if we are doing our job correctly, we aren’t going into the pit to discover the snowpack details – we are going into the snow pit to verify what we already know.

NWS: This has been super enlightening! Thank you for speaking with us.

Avalanche: Our pleasure.


Snow Profile

Snow Profile showing the snow layers and temperature versus snow depth.


Monthly Snow Pit Profile showing snow showing snow crystals by depth and stability of snow by layer.




Meet & Greet – Ada County Emergency Manager

We at the National Weather Service in Boise, Idaho, strive to keep the citizens of Southwest Idaho and Southeast Oregon safe at all times. One of the ways we achieve this goal is by working closely with the Emergency Managers in each county we serve. In this edition of Sage Winds, we spoke to Crash Marusich, the Emergency Planner for Ada County.

Crash Marusich (right), the Ada County Emergency Planner, with Jay Briedenbach (left), the NWS Boise Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

Crash Marusich (right), the Ada County Emergency Planner, with Jay Briedenbach (left), the NWS Boise Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

NWS: Tell me about yourself and how you moved into the emergency management sector.

Crash: I’m from Arizona originally, where I was a Desert Guide for many years, and then became a Park Ranger. I really loved both of these jobs, but my family and I really wanted to move to the Boise area. I had a background in public speaking and community outreach, so the Emergency Management Department offered me this job 8 years ago and I took it! I didn’t know too much about the job when I first started, but I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been a great crossover. I’m really glad I started out in community outreach – having to learn about emergency management and how to translate the information into layman’s terms. That has been very helpful.

I am now moving into more of a planning role at my office. I’ll be working with the responders more, which I’m very excited about. It’s an interesting new perspective. I’m moving from how do I get John Q. Public prepared properly for disaster, to how do all of these agencies work together to protect 400,000 people. This new shift has been exciting and I’m enjoying it. Actually, I received big news this week! I’m now a certified emergency manager with the International Association of Emergency Managers.

NWS: Hurrah! That’s great news! Congratulations.

Crash: Thanks. There are about 2,600 of us certified internationally. So, now I’ve gone from a certified Parks and Recreation professional to a certified Emergency Manager. My background has really helped me picture what is going on outside of the urban environment. It’s a good place to come from; I have a good understanding of where I want to go, especially in mitigation – how can we reduce the effects of these hazards, how can we build smarter homes, are there places we shouldn’t build, etc.

NWS: Would you describe the nature of your work for us?

Crash: I do mitigation and response planning for the county. We are also currently reviewing our standard operating procedures and emergency operations plans for the county. We want to make sure that our staff is capable of doing their job in any given emergency.  We are also working on a wildfire mapping project. We’re going to get a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) into the foothills and we’re going to do some multispectral photography over the entire county. The goal is to clearly define the entire wildland-urban interface.  This mapping will hopefully include a number of factors that will assist with both response and mitigation planning.

NWS: What has been the highest impact weather event for Ada County this season?

Crash: That would have to be when that wet thunderstorm hit on July 8th, where the North End and the Bench experienced areas of flooding. We just got a report from the Ada County Highway District detailing all of the calls they received and the responses they took.  The storm drains were overwhelmed by the sudden volume, became clogged, and ended up flooding a lot of places where it normally wouldn’t have otherwise.

NWS: What year was it that the big wind event took place at the Ada County Fair?

Crash: August 2010. There was a microburst at the Fair; there quite a few minor injuries sustained due to the winds.  A lot of the tents got whipped up and blown away.  It was totally unexpected.

NWS: So, how did your office respond in these events?

Crash: We are a coordination and support agency. We try to get the community ready before the disaster so that we sustain as little damage as possible.  We coordinate with agencies responding to an event, and after all of that, we plan for the “new normal.”  We work in the background, always learning from each event so that we can respond more effectively next time.

NWS: So, when do you use the Emergency Operations Center?

Crash: During a major event we would have it up and running. We will open it as an exercise during the Western Idaho Fair this year. We also had it open for the Special Olympics that were held here in 2009. The National Weather Service was there giving daily morning briefings!

NWS: How does your office get in touch with the public other than through the media?

Crash: For now we have something called “ISAWS” (Idaho State Warning System) that the public needs to sign up for.  Communication has been really hard ever since we started moving away from landline phones!  There’s nothing linking cellphone numbers to an address, so if we wanted to evacuate a certain area, we would be hard pressed to do so solely using the phone as the main line of communication. We’re currently in the process of moving our County Mass Notification System to a program called “Code Red.” We just hired a new employee whose job will include working on getting our social media outlet established. Now, I do encourage everyone to own a NOAA Weather Alert Radio – that’ll alert you to that 3 AM warning that you probably wouldn’t see or heard anywhere otherwise. It includes all threats and all hazards. It’s a great resource.

NWS: Does the Spotter Network have an impact on the work your office does?

Crash: Yes. A lot of the damage reports that we get are from them through your office; it’s important to track what goes on and why. It helps immensely that you have this network set up and that we have such a great relationship with your office. The open communication that we can call on when needed is fabulous!

NWS: I know that we do a lot of collaborative work, such as our joint river mapping work, which is featured on our website.

Crash: Yes, that is a great example. Because of our work together, one can plot possible minor, moderate, or major flooding events on an Ada County map and see where the river would go.  It’s a great resource for everyone.

NWS: Well Crash, that is all I have for you! Thank you for your time!

Crash: Thank you for having me.