Quick Response Report #100
A MAJOR SNOW-AVALANCHE EPISODE IN NORTHWEST MONTANA, FEBRUARY,
David R. Butler
Department of Geography and Planning
Southwest Texas State University
San Marcos, TX 78666-4616
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science
Foundation under Grant No. CMS-9632458.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in
this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the National Science Foundation.
A MAJOR SNOW-AVALANCHE EPISODE IN NORTHWEST MONTANA, FEBRUARY,
During the evening and early-morning hours of February 8-9, 1996,
numerous snow avalanches (associated with heavy rains in the Pacific
Northwest of the United States) were triggered along the southern
boundary of Glacier National Park, Montana. These avalanches buried a
portion of U.S. Highway 2 (US2) approximately four miles east of the
village of Essex, Montana, as well as the mainline tracks of the
Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railroad (BNRR). US2 is the only
east-west link across the Rockies in northern Montana; when closed, a
180-mile detour from East Glacier Park to West Glacier is required.
US2 was closed during the evening of February 8 and into the morning
of February 9 by snow avalanches blocking traffic. Additionally,
approximately 75 yards of track of the BNRR were blocked for about
eight hours, shutting down all freight traffic as well as the
eastbound Amtrak passenger train from Seattle to Chicago.
Upon learning of the highway and railroad closures, a graduate student
and I traveled to Essex, MT, with authorization and funds from the
Natural Hazard Center's Quick Response Program. Our purposes were:
- to interview local residents concerning their reactions to the
recent avalanche activity, and how they were affected by it;
- to find how local residents gather information necessary for
decision-making during times of high avalanche danger;
- to determine how driving habits and views toward driving through
avalanche-prone areas are affected by avalanche activity;
- to discern what actions (if any) residents feel should be taken
by governments to increase avalanche awareness;
- to collect standard demographic data of interview respondents;
- to compare data collected on-site with data collected by a postal
survey of local residents conducted in the mid-1980s (Butler,
The postal survey reported in Butler (1987) utilized a
questionnaire to discern local residents' knowledge of, and reaction
to, snow-avalanche hazards along US2. That survey had an excellent
return rate for such postal surveys, but illustrated an educational
bias, in that approximately 90% of respondents had some form of
college education. That survey included residents of the US2 corridor
between Essex and East Glacier Park; however, some residents of East
Glacier Park never drive west to utilize the US2 corridor in winter,
instead traveling to the east to Browning and Cut Bank, MT. Some of
these individuals may have responded to the postal survey, and thus
adversely affected its representativeness of residents of the
avalanche-prone region. For these reasons, I believed that an on-site
data collection effort, immediately following a major avalanche
episode, would provide more accurate data concerning local residents'
knowledge of, and reaction to, the avalanche hazard, as well as
providing a more representative cross-section of local residents in
terms of educational and employment backgrounds.
Methods and Sample Size
Personal interviews were conducted by graduate student Forrest
Wilkerson and me with over 60 local residents of the Essex community.
We spoke with residents concerning their experiences with the recent
snow-avalanche closure of US2 and the BNRR, and took notes during
these interviews. Of the people interviewed, 38 were willing to be
formally interviewed using a pre-established questionnaire essentially
the same as the postal survey form reported by Butler (1987). The
remaining individuals were in some cases interested but too busy to
have interview forms filled out (primarily workers of the BNRR at the
Essex staging yard, but also including a busy local fry cook at a
small restaurant), or simply did not wish to have their opinions
formally recorded. The individuals willing to be formally interviewed
with the questionnaire included most of the employees of the Izaak
Walton Inn in Essex; several employees of the BNRR yard in Essex,
including the local roadmaster responsible for maintaining traffic
flow through the avalanche zone and who described the snow-clearing
actions needed to re-open the railroad line; and local residents of
Essex encountered in the area, including several individuals
interviewed at the Snow Slip Inn (an excellent place-name for the
region!) approximately eight miles east of Essex and on the opposite
side of the location of the highway closure.
Sample Group Characteristics
Of the 38 formal interviewees, 63% were male and 37% were female, down
from the 94% male-respondent number reported in Butler (1987).
Caucasians comprised the vast majority of the group (87%, with 11%
Native Americans and 3% Hispanic). Mean age of respondents was 40.51
years (standard deviation [SD] 13.74 years), and average length of
residence was 13.5 years (SD 16.6 years). As in the postal survey
(Butler, 1987), respondents generally had either lived in the area a
very short time (typically less than three years, and usually in
association with employment at the Izaak Walton Inn, which thrives on
winter tourism associated with cross-country skiing) or for well over
15 years (essentially had lived there most of their lives). The
education level illustrated in the sample group was much more
representative than that shown in the postal survey (Butler, 1987): 5%
of respondents had post-graduate college education, 21% were college
graduates, 50% attended college or a vo-tech school for less than 4
years, 13% were high school graduates, and 11% had not completed high
school. Occupational categories included 61% associated with tourism
in some form (hotel worker, ski instructor, restaurant waitress,
etc.), 13% who were laborers for the BNRR, 13% who were retired, 5%
involved in teaching, and 8% "other" (including a locomotive engineer,
an emergency medical technician, and a manager of the rail yard).
Knowledge of the Snow-Avalanche Hazard
Self-reported personal "level of experience" with snow avalanches was
comparable to that reported by Butler (1987), but with fewer people
reporting a "considerable level" of experience. In the current survey,
26% reported having considerable levels of experience with snow
avalanches, 18% moderate levels, 39% very little experience, and 16%
described themselves as having "no experience" with snow avalanche
hazards (due to rounding, some values reported here do not add exactly
When asked about the frequency of snow-avalanche hazards in the area
(a question designed to discern the accuracy with which individuals
perceive the hazard), a wide range of responses was recorded. Nearly
equivalent numbers (29%, 29%, and 34% respectively) responded that
avalanche-hazard frequency occurred "several times per winter", "once
per winter", and "once every 2-5 years." Only 6% felt that the hazard
occurred less than once every five years, and one person said the
hazard never occurred, in spite of the road and railroad having just
been closed by avalanching! The accuracy of the response (road
closures occurring on average about once every 3-5 years; Butler and
Malanson, 1985) has increased since the postal survey (Butler, 1987),
in which over half of the respondents answered that the frequency was
several times per winter. The increase in accuracy assessment may be a
function of the great expansion in winter tourism-related activities
in the area since the mid-1980s, at which time virtually no one in the
area had heard of cross-country ski/lodging packages. By 1996, such
packages were advertised in national publications, and snowshoeing had
also become a popular winter activity (when I visited the Izaak Walton
Inn in 1993, and brought snowshoes, people were intrigued and
commented on what a good idea it was; when I visited the Inn again in
February, 1995, snowshoes were available for rental).
One question assessed the feelings experienced by respondents during
times of avalanche hazard and road closure. Individuals could choose
from more than one category, so values reported below exceed 100%.
During periods of high hazard and road closure, 71% of the respondents
reported feeling "cautious," 50% described themselves as "alert but
not fearful," and 29% described themselves as feeling either "fearful"
or "apprehensive." More individuals described themselves as
"helpless" rather than "in control" (5% vs. 3%), and no individual
chose the "no fear" category.
Individuals were asked to describe the nature of the impact of the
avalanche hazard upon themselves. Again, multiple responses were
allowed. A full 50% reported that avalanche hazards and closures
impacted their business or work, 44% described an impact of
inconvenience (typically because of travel disruption), 13% felt
impacted because the avalanches were obstacles to receiving medical
care, and 6% felt impacted because they had witnessed deaths in the
past during prior avalanche episodes elsewhere.
One question was designed to simply assess knowledge of the recent
closure. Respondents were asked if US2 had ever experienced a major
avalanche. Definition of "a major avalanche" was left up to each
person. Seventy-four percent responded yes, but 26% replied no, even
though the road had been closed by avalanching less than two weeks
previously. Of note also is the fact that in February 1979, a major
snow avalanche indeed ripped out a bridge along US2 and caused a
month-long period in which the detour of 180 miles was in effect!
Either the 26% responding "no" were completely oblivious, or had an
extraordinarily stringent personal definition of what constitutes a
A final question in the group of questions assessing local knowledge
focused on the perception of individuals as to the seriousness of the
present and future hazard. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents
replied that the present and future avalanche hazard was "somewhat
serious," 16% replied "very serious," and 11% replied it was not
serious at all (and 11% "did not know"). These results contrast with
those from the earlier postal survey (Butler, 1987), in which only 7%
felt the threat was very serious, 56% reported somewhat serious, and a
significantly higher 35% replied that the hazard was not serious.
These shifts are at least partially a function, in my view, of the
reorientation of the local economy to a winter tourism and
Reactions to the Snow-Avalanche Hazard
Respondents were asked several questions concerning their individual
adjustments to the avalanche hazard. When asked the frequency of
their winter driving through the avalanche-prone area, 38% responded
"several times per week" (many of these were laborers for the BNRR
whose daily journey from home to work took them through the area in
question), 14% said "once a week," 35% said only "once or twice a
month," and a surprisingly high 14% responded that they never travel
through the area in winter. That value was up from a mere 4% in the
postal survey (Butler, 1987). Those individuals were, however, among
the group of retirees in the Essex area, or people whose jobs at the
Izaak Walton Inn effectively precluded them from travel during "high
Individuals were asked if they travel at night through the
avalanche-prone zone. Sixty-eight percent said that they do (compared
to 83% in the postal survey; Butler, 1987), and 32% do not, again
illustrating some adjustment and/or awareness of the difficulty of
seeing/reacting to snow avalanches in the dark.
Finally, individuals were asked if they travel when avalanche warning
signs are posted or avalanche warnings are issued. Although 49% of the
respondents said that they travel both at day and night when warnings
are up, that value is down from 68% in the postal survey (Butler,
1987), and a full 49% said that they do not travel at all when
warnings are posted. The current population seems to have a much
greater respect for the danger of traveling during periods of
warnings, as compared to the group from the 1980s.
Information Gathering and Awareness in the Hazard Zone
Individuals were asked a set of questions concerning their sources of
information concerning avalanche hazards, and one question regarding
suggestions for the future. When questions concerning the primary
source of information utilized in gathering knowledge of snow
avalanches, 52% replied that they use "locals/co-workers" as their
primary source. This is significantly down from the 95% reported from
the postal survey (Butler, 1987), and seems to represent a broadening
of the information sources utilized, as well as a greater cognizance
of the hazard in the area, which could in turn be interpreted as
resulting from the shift into a winter tourism-based economy. Other
sources of information included past personal experiences with
avalanches (28%), newspapers (8%), radio (12%), old photos (8%),
reading avalanche literature (4%), and formal avalanche training (4%).
Respondents were also specifically asked how they learned that the US2
area was prone to avalanches. Multiple sources were allowed, and 28%
learned from locals, an additional 28% learned from personal
experience (presumably knew what avalanche terrain looked like, having
lived elsewhere in avalanche-prone country), 10% had had direct
personal experiences with avalanches, 14% observed the conspicuous
snow-avalanche paths and snow sheds in the area, 10% had undertaken
avalanche training, 10% learned of the local situation through the
newspaper, 10% learned through the radio, 3% learned through local
pamphlet literature, and only 3% learned through consulting the
Glacier Country Avalanche Center (GCAC). The GCAC is responsible for
assessing avalanche danger in the US2 region, and for disseminating
warnings and watches. In a separate question, 19% of respondents said
they consulted the avalanche forecasts from the GCAC "at least once a
week," 27% consulted the forecasts "only during times of high hazard,"
and a depressingly high 54% of local respondents never consulted the
avalanche forecasts of the very agency designed to offer information
and warnings. When asked if they were aware of the high level of
avalanche danger prior to the recently concluded road and railroad
closure, 41% of the individuals said they were "very aware," 35%
replied "somewhat aware," and a rather high 24% were "unaware,"
further illustrating that the local warning distribution system still
has some major work to do in the area.
A final question asked individuals to offer suggestions for increasing
awareness of avalanche hazards during future periods of high hazard.
Multiple responses were allowed. Only 27% said that "government is
doing all that it can," 45% wanted more road signs and/or road
closures during high-hazard periods, and a very high value of 86%
wanted "more information or reports through various means." And this
from a group in which 54% never consult the forecasts of the GCAC!
It is apparent that a more representative cross-section of individuals
can be garnered by on-site surveying rather than through application
of a postal survey. More significantly, attitudes toward the
snow-avalanche hazard in the Essex area seem to have changed since the
utilization of the postal survey in the 1980s. Residents in general
have a greater knowledge of, and respect for, the snow-avalanche
hazard in the region, but still may be shockingly unaware of impending
danger at a given time. Little improvement in reaching the public via
avalanche warning issuance has occurred.
- Butler, David R., 1987.
- Snow-avalanche hazards, southern Glacier National Park, Montana:
the nature of local knowledge and individual responses.
Disasters 11 (3), 214-220.
- Butler, David R., and George P. Malanson, 1985.
- A history of high-magnitude snow avalanches, southern Glacier
National Park, Montana, U.S.A. Mountain Research and
Development 5(2), 175-182.
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October 9, 1997