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Devastating avalanches could strike timber, roads

Washington State
Robert DeWolf of Everett Mountain Rescue digs a hole in the snow Thursday on Mount Pilchuck to demonstrate how avalanche rescue workers evaluate snowpack safety.

Experts are warning that RECORD SNOWFALL this season has built up the potential for huge spring avalanches with the power to cause extensive damage to mountain hillsides, roads and bridges. Nearly 10 feet of winter snow has accumulated already in parts of the Cascades, including near Stevens Pass. If a massive slab of snow were to break off - and conditions are in place for this type of avalanche to occur - it could ravage the landscape, destroying timber stands, homes, roads and whatever else is in the avalanche's path. "There's the potential for something really big." This winter is ALREADY THE WORST AVALANCHE SEASON IN WASHINGTON IN MODERN HISTORY. Nine people from Washington have died in avalanches. Now, officials fear the death toll could rise and the potential for other damage from rushing walls of snow is high. "We have the potential for some PRETTY UNUSUAL events. It really depends on how the rest of the winter evolves. There's a lot we don't know yet." Changing temperatures, rainstorms, winds and heavy snowfall have created dangerous instability in the snowpack. Avalanche deaths in Washington can occur late into the season, sometimes as late as May. The La Nina weather pattern that already has dropped deeper-than-usual snow this year is likely to continue. Statistical models show that the weather pattern - colder temperatures and heavier-than-normal precipitation - tends to occur more in the second half of the winter. "This is a historical year, and it's not over yet."

OREGON - The State of Oregon reportedly ignored warnings about the dangers of a landslide on US Highway 30. Last month, that landslide happened, and it crushed homes and severed Highway 30 west of Clatskanie. State geologists predicted the landslide years ago, but a state board shelved the information to avoid clashes with land developers. "The information is out there - it's just not being used. It's a pity, because if we get more of these big storms, we're going to have more debris flows and more people in danger." The prediction was contained in landslide-hazard maps that state geologists drew up for all of western Oregon after landslides killed five people in 1996. The maps labeled most of the area in last month's slide as posing "very high" or "extreme" landslide hazard. They showed a dangerous area from Oregon State University clear-cuts down to an old earthen railroad crossing that allowed mud and debris to collect for more than a week, forming a lake. The debris broke loose Dec. 11, flooding homes in the danger zone. A state board quietly withdrew the maps from official use in 2003 after city and county officials complained that they might restrict development. The maps are available only on an obscure state Web site: www.coastalatlas.net.
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