Avalanche programme turns 25
It is 25 years since a special safety programme was introduced on one of the country's most notorious stretches of highway. The Milford Road avalanche control programme has since been credited with both saving lives and contributing millions of dollars to the local tourist economy.
The inland South Island region is avalanche country. Conditions once meant Milford was cut off from the outside world by road for three months of the year - but not any more, with seven weather stations standing sentinel over State Highway 94.
The stations are part of an avalanche control programme Avalanche Programme Manager Wayne Carran pushed from day one.
"It's close to the coast - supposedly the wettest place on earth, and it produces lots of really large avalanches." he explains. "I guess what makes it special and unique is the u-shaped valleys you see behind us. There no place to hide, and there's no structures to hide behind."
Avalanches have claimed four lives in the Milford Valley. The last was 25 years ago, before the programme got underway.
The programme's combination of weather forecasting and snow monitoring remains unique throughout the world - so too the way those running the system can trigger avalanches from the air, before they become a risk.
"There's been a fair bit of knowledge gained over the decades," helicopter pilot Richard Hayes explains, "and it goes a long way. You wouldn't go in and do this with anyone sitting beside you - especially as we basically throw bombs out onto the hill."
Some parts of the road are at risk from five different avalanche paths. It remains the only practical land route into Milford Sound. Transit NZ estimates that when it closes, it costs the economy up to $600,000 a day.
But little has changed for Carran.
"Every winter I just tiptoe into it. I have no prejudice...it's all about today and we'll deal with tomorrow when it shows up, really, and I can't do any more than that here. So I guess that's where 25 years disappeared to!"
Those 25 years will doubtless flood back to Carran and others who have worked on the programme at well-deserved anniversary celebrations on Thursday.
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