In what would be an unprecedented move, the town of Silverton and San Juan County are considering closing the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains because of high avalanche danger.
Jim Donovan, San Juan County’s director for the Office of Emergency Management, said a final decision whether to close the backcountry to recreationists will likely be decided later Thursday. Donovan said he planned to tour conditions by helicopter Thursday morning.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has listed the avalanche danger as “considerable” in the southern San Juan Mountains. Silverton officials fear the historic snow amounts have raised the potential risk for anyone venturing into the mountains.
“The worry is, with all this great powder, everyone and their brother are going to be out there,” said San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir. “And the backcountry is extremely dangerous right now.”
Fetchenheir has lived in Silverton for 40 years. In that time, he has never seen the backcountry close because of avalanche danger.
“It would be unprecedented,” he said.
Brian Lazar, deputy director for CAIC, said the continuous snowfall in recent weeks has loaded up avalanche paths. As a result, when avalanches occur, they are big.
“These are not the type of avalanches you walk away from with a close call,” he said. “For people out there skiing, the threat is, if you end up triggering one of these avalanches, you are unlikely to survive.”
Silverton and San Juan County governments have the authority to close town and county lands; they cannot close federal lands. But if San Juan County closed county roads that access federal lands, it would effectively keep people out, Fetchenheir said.
Calls to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management were not immediately returned Thursday morning.
Another potentially unprecedented move being considered by local officials is whether to trigger avalanches on Kendall Mountain that have the potential of reaching the town of Silverton. The blasting would be a preemptive step to mitigate the danger and bring snow down in a controlled manner.
Two avalanche paths – the Idaho and Rabbit Ears – present risks to several homes on the east side of town.
A naturally triggered avalanche on the Idaho path reached the Animas River last week, Fetchenheir said. But storms this week put another 2 or 3 feet of snow in the mountains, renewing the fear of a slide.
“They are definitely thinking about shooting those slides,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s ever been done before that I can think of.”
Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said Thursday crews were evaluating whether to trigger the slides. She said town officials want to avoid what happened in Lake City this week, where an avalanche hit a home, injuring three people inside.
“In light of what happened in Lake City, Silverton wants to make sure they are protecting any homes that are maybe in slide paths,” she said.
Fetchenheir said two main roads – county roads 2 and 110 – have been buried in avalanches.
Silverton Mountain, located along County Road 110, has suspended operations after a slide recently cut off access to the ski area.
On Wednesday, another slide ran across County Road 2, almost reaching an industrial park, Fetchenheir said.