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Province upgrades Duffey Lake Road avalanche-control system

Gazex system cuts down on closures

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Listening to Robb Andersen discuss the avalanche control system on the Duffey Lake Road, it's easy to find yourself envisioning a scene from an action movie.

In order to initiate the exploders, a technician parked on a secure part of the highway taps in "secret shoot codes" to their computer, explained Andersen, who leads the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure's (MOTI) avalanche management team.

That, in turn, sends a mix of propane and oxygen from a control shelter to the exploders (which look kind of like big culverts that jet out of the snow at 45-degree angles).

Once the components mix inside the exploder, a spark is lit, causing an explosion to shoot towards the snow. And sometimes—when the conditions are precarious—they trigger an avalanche.

With more than 1,400 avalanche paths around the province, throwing bombs from helicopters remains the province's "primary method of reducing risk and starting avalanches," explained Andersen, but remote-controlled systems, which are proliferating, offer major efficiencies. It allows the team to trigger avalanches 24/7, no matter what the weather is like.

"You can't fly if it's dark, and you can't fly if the weather is poor," said Andersen.

"We try to target low-traffic volume times if we can ... but if we think there is a risk, we can't risk it. We have to close the highway right away and deal with the problem."

This summer saw significant investments in the Duffey Lake system, with the province adding a fourth Gazex exploder on the east side of Path 51 (which is located directly above Duffey Lake), as well as upgrading the computer complex that operates the network.

"The communications are more stable, and it's much quicker," said Andersen. "It's actually making the avalanche control faster, because of quicker communication between the avalanche technician and the system on the mountain."

By way of example, Andersen noted that the system was fired off at about noon on Dec. 20, leading to an avalanche that covered the highway, resulting in a four-metre deep, 40-metre wide "deposit."

With the help of a massive front-end loader, everything was cleaned up within an hour and a half.

Andersen said that despite their force, avalanches don't tend to damage highways. Barriers, he noted, are removed from highways situated on known avalanche paths, making it easier for maintenance crews to remove debris and snow.

Over the last 27 years, the province has invested approximately $13 million in its provincial-avalanche program, with more than $1 million going towards the Duffey Lake Gazex system.

A Gazex system is also used in the Kootenay Pass, which is protected by 24 exploders. It, however, is not the only remote avalanche-control system the province uses; there are three others.

One system, known as the Wyssen Avalanche Control system, relies on towers that are used to remotely drop explosives into problem slopes.

The system was installed in the Three-Valley Gap area, west of Revelstoke on Highway 1, a couple years back, and has dramatically improved highway reliability in the area.

"Last year we reduced closure times by 70 per cent at Three Valley Gap," said Andersen. "In the past we've had issues with that highway being closed for a day or a day and a half, and then traffic gets backed up and people are sleeping on people's couches and stuff like that."

Which system is used is largely a factor of which companies bid on the projects, said Andersen, explaining that all of the projects go to tender and the companies that build the systems are all European.

December's heavy snowfall led to a busy month for the Ministry of Transportation Snow Avalanche Programs and road maintenance crews. The Duffey Lake Road incurred six delays, of 20 minutes or less, for avalanche control on Path 56 in addition to the Dec. 20 closure. The delays represent a 20-per-cent increase over seasonal norms.

"I think it may be a little bit busier than normal in the Duffey," said Andersen. "We'll see what the rest of the year has in store."

Andersen encourages the public to consult the DriveBC.ca website for information on potential delays for avalanche control and up-to-date road conditions.

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