Avalanche forecasting a testament to customer service

Bill Nicholson and Chantel Astorga spend a lot of their work days looking to the skies and the hills so Idaho drivers don't need to.

ITD's District 3 full-time avalanche forecasters, along with seasonal workers Brian Gorsage and Drew Lovell, monitor mountain corridors and steep hillsides for hidden winter hazards. Their expertise improves safe travel conditions for motorists by anticipating avalanches and avalanche conditions. Because of their professional skills, ITD has reduced the number and duration of closures and improves safety for wintertime travelers on Idaho 21, often referred to as "Avalanche Alley."

Although the corridor typically receives more than 300 inches of snow in a winter and is overshadowed by more than 50 threatening snow chutes, ITD has significantly improved travel through the area. When avalanche conditions are severe and the highway closes, the result is an 82-mile detour, resulting in lost time and economic impacts.

ITD's avalanche forecasters, who also assist other districts that have similar potential for closures, provide a unique and extremely valuable service to Idaho travelers.

In the decade before the department started using avalanche forecasters, the average snowfall on Idaho 21 was 227 inches, and the route was closed an average of 42 days. In the past three years, with aggressive avalanche forecasting and occasional preemptive strikes to clear hazardous chutes, the average number of closures has been reduced to 16 days. Yet, the average snowfall the past three years increased to 314 inches.

What does that mean to travelers?

Fewer closures results in improved highway safety, reduces detours, and keeps passenger and commercial traffic moving. Those benefits are excellent examples of ITD' service to Idaho motorists and support the department's mission and Strategic Plan goals:

  • Operating the safest transportation system possible
  • Providing a mobility-focused transportation system that drives economic opportunity, and
  • Using innovation to become the best transportation system in the country

With the advent of winter driving conditions, ITD has made the transition from summer to winter maintenance activities. In southwest Idaho (District 3), ITD maintenance has moved to two shifts, changing between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. That ensures 24-hour coverage on high-volume routes. The district has 83 pieces of snow-fighting equipment (de-icers, sanders, graders and plows) at its disposal to clear more than 2,550 lane miles of highway. The district also has 37 loaders and backhoes available to load sanders and clear highway turnouts.

Published 12-14-2012