Snow and Avalanche Center 2019 Avalanche News

Aging avalanche control system has some worried about traffic delays, highway impacts
Tuesday, October 8th 2019

This story is updated with a subsequent one below. The avalanche control system passed its inspections and is ready for winter.

RENO, Nev. (News 4 & Fox 11) — Although the weather has been warming in parts of Northern Nevada, the recent snow showers at Lake Tahoe and Mt.Rose mean winter is coming. Like they do every time this time of year, Nevada Department of Transportation officials are preparing for the winter season.

NDOT officials say they inspect their avalanche control system twice a year (once before the winter season and once after).

However, their current system is 27 years old. If it happened to fail this winter, there could be some noticeable delays and impacts for drivers.

The avalanche control system was implemented in 1992, near a high-risk area for avalanches. According to NDOT officials, the system has never failed. In fact on average, it can help clear a highway slide in less than an hour. At nearly 30 years old, the technology is starting to wear. While it hasn’t shown signs of failure yet, it’s age is becoming a bigger concern for NDOT officials. As a result, NDOT officials are looking at alternatives if the system isn’t functional this winter, including using hand detonated explosives.

"So one thing we're looking into should we need to in the absence of the avalanche control system is the potential of having man made detonations on that slope," explained Meg Ragonese, spokesperson for NDOT. "That means a person, a pyrotechnics expert in the area, would actually throw an explosive device into that slope."

NDOT will be inspecting the avalanche center before the end of the month to see if it’s still functional. If it's still operational, avalanche management will continue as normal. But if succumbs to age, wear and tear, that’s when the delays could start because NDOT would have to use slower methods of clearing snow.

"We don't know exactly what this snow season will bring. As far as the amounts of [avalanche control] deployments, we don't know that yet--- that's in the hands of mother nature," said Ragonese. "What we do know is that we'll be continuing to work safely to utilize the avalanche control system and do our best to keep Mt. Rose highway safe and open through this and upcoming winters."

To mitigate some of the age issues, NDOT is revitalizing the building and updating some of its components.

In the next two years, NDOT is also adding six new snowblowers for use on the highway, which should help clear snow in extreme conditions.

One local who lives near Mt.Rose says she’s not too concerned about avalanches, but she wished NDOT would use more updated equipment. “I think that if someone travels on Mt.Rose Highway, they would want an accurate system," Explained Danielle Espinoza, a Reno resident. "Especially for those who have to travel between Lake Tahoe and Reno for work."

By the end of October, NDOT officials plan to have fully inspected the avalanche control system and will have a better idea of how ready it is for the winter season.

After concerns, inspection shows avalanche control on Mt. Rose highway ready for winter
Nov. 21, 2019

Nevada’s highest state highway pass is ready for avalanche season. That’s according to the Nevada Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for keeping Mt. Rose Highway open.

The highway – officially known as State Route 431 – is the most direct link between Reno and the Lake Tahoe Basin. And at 8,911 feet it’s also the highest year-round highway pass in the Sierra Nevada, which makes clearing mass amounts of snow a big challenge.

That’s why confirming reliability of a remote avalanche triggering system means frequent highway users can breathe a sigh of relief.

Reliability questions cropped up in October following a pre-season inspection that showed a need for carpentry and electrical improvements to the building that houses equipment for the system.

The GazEx system is a propane powered blaster that agency workers use to trigger avalanches on slopes above the highway.

Triggering slides clears snow from the slopes in a controlled manner that reduces the risk of unplanned avalanches that can be a hazard to drivers.

Without the GazEx system, NDOT would need to coordinate more labor-intensive avalanche control tactics, such as sending ski patrollers out with hand charges.

Not only do hand charges involve personal risk, they also require more labor and can only be delivered during daylight hours. The GazEx system is triggered remotely and can operate around the clock.

The latest inspection report shows NDOT made minor electrical upgrades and improved ventilation in a small building that houses mechanical equipment.

Updates to the Mt. Rose Highway avalanche control system aren’t the only improvements to NDOT’s snow-clearing capabilities. Across northwestern Nevada, the agency has stockpiled 33,000 cubic yards of salt and 260,000 gallons of salt brine to spread on highways.

In the next two years the agency is also planning to replace truck-mounted snowblowers for use on the highway.

NDOT is also designing an entirely new building to house the GazEx system.

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