With over a dozen deaths attributed to avalanches this winter, KGVO News spoke with Steve Karkanen, Director of the Western Montana Avalanche Center about the current alert level in the Missoula area.

"We've had 14 people die in avalanches just in the month of January alone," Karkanen said. "We've been fortunate here in western Montana, in that we're calling the avalanche danger moderate right now, which means that there are always dangerous pockets that you can find up there. Mostly, we're concerned about wind-loading, when the wind blows up high "

Karkanen was on the scene on February 28, 2014 when Missoula experienced a rare 'urban avalanche', which destroyed two homes, killed one person and severely injured two others.He described the conditions that led to the fatal slide.

“It was such an unusual avalanche,” Karkanen said. “The last part of February and the first part of March in most years, that mountain is bare and has no snow on it. The other thing that’s unusual is that it was loaded on the west slope from winds that came out of the east. Typically Mt. Jumbo, on that particular slope, is wind scoured it gets prevailing winds from the west so we typically don’t see much snow that gets loaded on those upper reaches.

Strong winds had been shooting through Hellgate canyon during Friday morning, pushing more snow on top of what was already an extremely abnormal amount of snow for that section of Mt. Jumbo

The strange weather conditions helped make an avalanche that was almost as powerful as it could have possibly been.

"It’s never been documented that an avalanche that size has hit the valley floor,” Karkanen. “In the scale of 1 to 5, we are calling that a size 4, which means that it could go bigger at some point, based at the measurements that we have.”

The study showed an average snow depth of about three feet and a total plummet of 2,200 feet from crown to terminus.

68 year-old Michel Colville succumbed to injuries received in the avalanche, while her husband, 66 year-old Fred Allendorf and two children, Phoenix and Coral Scoles-Coburn were injured.

"We just don't know if that could happen again here," he said. "Two years ago we had severe snow here, whereas last year they had it on the east coast, and with climate change we don't know if it will happen here again. Right now, you can see grass poking out on Mount Jumbo, plus the elk have been tromping around up there which also helps with the snow pack stability."

Karkanen confirmed that "as of this week, there's no avalanche danger up there on Mount Jumbo."


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