Forecasting for safety: Evolution of the Sierra Avalanche Center
At the time of this writing, “Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche” had just had its theatrical release. For anyone who is alive and lived in the area during that time remembers it well, as it was the third deadliest avalanche in the nation’s history. Even four decades after it happened, the movie can be emotional and difficult to watch for Lake Tahoe locals.
In it, Mother Nature proved just how volatile and serious she could be, and the poignant 1982 event later sparked the formation of the Sierra Avalanche Center.
It was only a few years later that U.S. Forest Service employee Bob Moore began forecasting the winter weather and supplying information for ski resorts and backcountry skiers and snowboarders via a daily telephone line update to help avert further avalanche-induced accidents and fatalities.
It was during that time when he was working local ski patrols at resorts around the Tahoe Basin, and it became a symbiotic relationship to keep skiers and snowboarders safe. In the eighties, he also worked with ski patrols using explosives to trigger avalanches, like shooting off the 75mm howitzers at Alpine Meadows.
While Moore is now retired after 37-plus years of being a winter sports specialist and weather forecaster, SAC Executive Director David Reichel says that his regular snow conditions updates that Moore voluntarily provided within the Truckee Ranger District was likely the genesis for the Sierra Avalanche Center.
“Avalanches were happening in other regions, and he recognized that there was a need for this information here, too. But it needed support from the community to keep it going,” Reichel says.
In 2004, Moore put together the concept of the Sierra Avalanche Center and enlisted a volunteer to help with winter forecasting duties. It became officially stamped as a nonprofit in the 2003/04 season (next year will be its 20th anniversary) and now acts as a partnership with the US Forest Service, still sharing the Truckee Ranger District with its other staff.
SAC observers and forecasters usually come back for the winter season in mid-October, their salaries paid for through the nonprofit. Then its HR and other personnel start filtering back in, so that “when conditions ‘turn on’ we’re all ready to go,” Reichel says.
In SAC’s first 10 years, the Avalanche Center was mostly volunteer run, raising their own funds. But then after that they started professionalizing the center and trying to make it more sustainable.
Reichel moved to Tahoe in the late 1990s to snowboard as much as he could and found himself drawn to the backcountry. He began taking classes and learning more about what he needed to stay safe in the wilderness and became a professional weather observer with the Sierra Avalanche Center six or seven years ago (he also acted as a weather forecaster before becoming the nonprofit’s executive director).
He works directly through the nonprofit based out of the Forest Service station and his salary is fundraised through grants, corporate partnerships, and private donors.
Its volunteer board of directors oversees the operations, and receives funding in pretty much three equal parts: one-third from private donors, one-third from corporate support (such as the Epic Promise with Vail, local ski shops, snowmobile outfitters, Palisades Tahoe, etc.), and one-third from grants (mainly from the California State Parks and Nevada’s OHV divisions). The funds help support three Forest Service avalanche forecasters, two professional observers, and one Forest Service supervisor.
The forecasters work with the Forest Service, and SAC collaborates closely with the rangers, but Reichel admits that there are still a few obstacles in keeping the center alive, such as hiring new people and figuring out a place for them to live. On the Forest Service side, their budget has been getting sucked up more by wildfires every year and therefore one of Reichel’s goals is to figure out how to change the job description for a Forest Service supervisor to provide better pay, benefits, and match the cost of living.
“We’re aware of the changes in the community and trying to figure out how to address that,” Reichel says.
In the meantime, the SAC is also looking to improve its data visualization product on its website, which was initially suggested by local pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones and seconded by local pro skier Michelle Parker, as well as others who frequent Palisades Tahoe.
“We’re updating the website to include more functionality, breaking it down into accidents by location, season, and more,” adds Reichel.
Sierra Avalanche Center forecasters gather data including weather observations, snowpack, and reported or induced avalanches in the Sierra to create and issue avalanche warnings and advisories. When out in the field, SAC observers and forecasters perform tests by starting small avalanches in the backcountry that can show potentially unsafe terrain. The SAC website then acts as a hub for publishing these findings, and it allows people to share stories about the kinds of conditions they’ve encountered in the backcountry that others should be aware of. It also keeps a database of accidents that are reported in the United States.
“The goal is to be active in terms of accidents and share potentially really dangerous conditions. Avalanche.org is a Colorado-based site that shares avalanches that happen around the U.S. They reported 17 fatalities last year and that is on the lower end … there were 37 in the 2020-21 season which was the highest it’s been in 100 years,” Reichel says.
Which makes sense considering that was the beginning of the pandemic and right when ski resorts closed in March of 2020, Mother Nature dumped a whole bunch of snow (at least in the Sierra Nevada). That drove people into the backcountry to get their turns in while changing snow conditions kept coming.
“The snowpack that season was awful, and maybe complicated by humans who perhaps had a little more time on their hands due to the lockdown,” Reichel says.
Fortunately, during that time, SAC kept forecasting because it wanted to help keep people safe during the volatile spring snow season.
“I noticed a lot more beginners in the backcountry, too,” Reichel recalls, clear from people hiking in snowshoes or using rudimentary gear. However, he says that just the way the snow was that year was likely a bigger factor in itself for fatalities than the increased number of people out in the unsupervised wilderness.
“When we have high avalanche danger after a storm, we definitely get a ton of interest and it’s great to see that heightened activity on the website. It is a challenge to get people tuning in at less obvious times, though,” he says.
Never knowing what the weather is going to do is the reason people should consider using the SAC as a regular resource and consider attending the pre-season California Avalanche Workshop usually held at the North Tahoe Event Center in Kings Beach or streamed online.
“There are times when the snow is more reactive than I thought it would be and there are times when I think it’s going to be more reactive and it’s not,” Reichel says when testing slopes out in the field. “It definitely changes, and I try to be humble; it makes for a rich and interesting life,” Reichel adds.
Fortunately, his preparation has allowed him to never have been caught in an avalanche and Reichel wants to keep it that way.
Along with providing regular avalanche forecasts and hosting the annual California Avalanche Workshop before the snow starts flying, SAC partners with several local organizations to provide a variety of avalanche courses and clinics to help backcountry skiers and riders be safe and confident beyond ski resort boundary lines.
For instance, Backcountry Babes, Alpenglow Expeditions, the Outdoor Adventure Club, Tahoe Mountain School, and West Wind Collective offer Rescue, Level 1, and Level 2 courses. Lake Tahoe Community College and Expedition Kirkwood provide classes in the South Lake Tahoe area and Blackbird Mountain Guides cover the entire Tahoe basin.
For more information about how to become backcountry certified or do learn more about Sierra Avalanche Center, visit http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org.
Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022-23 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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