Avalanche education for all

Janet Kellam tackles an "urban" snow problem

  • Janet Kellam investigates an avalanche fracture line on Titus Ridge north of Ketchum.

    Courtesy Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center
  • Kids playing on the freshly snow-loaded slope triggered this slide above Woodside Elementary School in Hailey, Idaho, after an unusual storm cycle in January 2008.

    Courtesy Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center

Name Janet Kellam
Age Almost 53; she was born Nov. 28, 1956
Occupation Director, Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, Ketchum, Idaho
Number of avalanches survived Two
Loves to hate Faceted snow crystals, which cause persistent weak layers in the snowpack that can lead to avalanches
Sideline Matchmaker/ Universal Life Church minister. Sheintroduced one of her avalanche forecasters to his future wife, then married them at Circle A Ranch in Stanley, Idaho.

From a window of this low, brown building on Sun Valley Road in Ketchum, Idaho, the hill across the way looks perfect for sledding: frosted in snow and gently sloping, surrounded by towering peaks.

On the other side of the window, a woman in reading glasses squints at numbers on a computer screen, her graying braid flipped over one shoulder. She could be an accountant in a fleece jacket.

But neither view is quite what it seems.

Skis, boots, helmets and beacons litter the floor behind Janet Kellam. This is the office of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, and Kellam, its director, is compiling temperature, wind and snowpack data for her daily avalanche forecast. As she clicks through the photos of gnarly slides in the area's backcountry that she uses to teach avalanche courses, she calmly describes the serenity that settled over her the time she was completely buried.

Then there's that hill. Take the slope angle, the aspect, the weather, the snowpack's condition. Combine these with the increasing number of homes around the valley that lie directly under snow-covered slopes like this one. The result: an "urban" avalanche problem that has become Kellam's personal obsession.

In-town avalanches are rare compared to backcountry ones. Yet the potential is there. Two series of slides hit three weeks apart in January 2008, blocking roads and flooding and damaging homes. Kellam isn't worried about the houses: The ones in avalanche paths here are burly feats of structural engineering. But their inhabitants -- and the snow-removal crews, utility workers, visiting friends and house cleaners -- often don't realize the danger. "I can't tell you the number of dog walkers underneath steep slopes in some of these neighborhoods that I've had to stop," Kellam says.

During 2008's avalanche cycles, slides hit multiple areas in close succession, straining emergency crews. With more development or bigger cycles, the problem could get worse. And Kellam wonders, "Is it fair to ask these people to be put at such risk because somebody wants to live underneath an avalanche slope?"

Kellam has spoken to local officials about risky development proposals. But most of her efforts target the folks in immediate danger. In 2000, the avalanche center began running courses for linemen with Idaho Power, who are often called out during a storm's peak. In addition to avalanche basics, linemen learn to work more safely in avalanche conditions and how to use their equipment for rescues if needed. Kellam says they're "superstars"; once, they buried a dummy with a beacon in eight feet of snow just to practice a more realistic avalanche rescue scenario. In 2007, Kellam began offering free avalanche-safety briefings to snow-removal crews, with an interpreter on hand for Spanish-speaking workers. But the program fizzled after almost no one showed up two years in a row.

"I think it's always going to be hard to get people to pay attention to it -- until, unfortunately, there's an accident."

Kellam first came to Idaho in the 1970s. Offered a summer job in Stanley, the college student examined a map and was won over by the vast areas in the state without roads. A former college ski racer, Kellam became a ski guide here and elsewhere in the West, but the community's warmth made her settle down permanently.

Kellam's skiing ability, snow knowledge and community spirit -- she revived a faltering local Nordic area -- caught the eye of the avalanche center's previous director, who tapped her to be a forecaster in 1996.

The avalanche center has always offered public courses as well as daily winter avalanche forecasts for the nearby backcountry. Early courses drew three or four people; now, each class gets close to 100 students. For a small suggested donation, the basic course identifies avalanche terrain and warning signs, and advises what to do if you're caught in a slide. Kellam has also started courses tailored to women and snowmobilers.

Her approach seems to be working. Last winter, nearly 700 people took classes. "We have a much more diverse audience" than in 2001, when she took charge of the center, she says. "We're not just getting the avid backcountry skier."

The evolution in avalanche consciousness is written on the snow. Last winter, Kellam noticed that most tracks on high-avalanche danger days carved down safer, low-angle slopes. "I saw more good decisions than I've ever seen in the backcountry around here."

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