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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Avalanche danger growing

Avalanche danger is considerable in the region’s backcountry and only expected to increase as fresh snow is expected to be dumped tonight atop slippery, cold-hardened slopes.

One avalanche has already been reported in the St. Joe River area near Prospector Creek, according to a report issued Friday by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The slide happened Wednesday after a road grader passed under a steep slope. The grader was not hit by the snow and no one was injured.

“Things are kind of dicey out there,” said Bob Kasun, an avalanche forecaster with the Forest Service office in Coeur d’Alene.

The arctic air mass that brought temps as low as minus 23 to Priest Lake on Friday morning is expected to hover over the Inland Northwest at least through this afternoon, when a warmer, snow-bearing Pacific front is expected to hit the region, said Matt Fugazzi, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office in Spokane. At least 2 to 3 inches of snow is expected to fall beginning after sunset Saturday.

“It could be more,” Fugazzi said. “We haven’t been able to peg down the actual snow amounts.”

Additional snow and possibly rain is expected next week, which could create flooding problems in valley areas, Fugazzi said.

Even without any additional snow, backcountry slopes are increasingly unstable because of the current frigid temperatures. Avalanche forecasters tested slopes in the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains of North Idaho on Thursday and found “considerable” danger on cooler north and east-facing slopes, according to a report posted on the agency’s Web site. Moderate avalanche danger exists on slopes that receive sun, which allows the different layers of snow to warm and bond together.

The cold weather tends to flatten out snow crystals on the surface of the snowpack, Kasun said. This creates a slippery surface on which new snow does not easily adhere.

“Cold weather does not help stabilize the snow,” Kasun said. “We need some warmer weather.”

The avalanche danger is rated as considerable across North Idaho, including the St. Joe River Basin. The danger is listed as high in northwest Montana’s St. Regis Basin. Ridgetops with windblown surface snow are among the areas most prone to avalanche.

Snowpack remains lower than average throughout most of the region, said Fugazzi, with the National Weather Service. Quartz Peak, north of Spokane, should have 20 inches by now. As of Friday, only 5 inches blanketed the mountain.

“There’s some real potential to make up some mountain snowpack this week,” Fugazzi said.