February is already the deadliest avalanche month in more than a decade. Here's what's fueling it.

Miles Blumhardt
Fort Collins Coloradoan

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Eighteen people have died in avalanches nationally in February, making it the deadliest month in more than a decade. And the month is barely half over.

Only January 2008, with 19 fatalities, saw more deaths.

The 25 deaths nationwide this season surpass last year's 23 and match the national toll of 25 in the 2018-19 and 2017-18 seasons, and some of the historically deadliest weeks are still ahead.

Colorado, which leads all states in avalanche deaths and accounts for about one-quarter of them since 1950, has borne the brunt of this deadly season. The state has seen six deaths in February – the state's seasonal average – including the most recent when two died Sunday. Ten of the 25 people killed by avalanches this season died in Colorado.

"Since 1950, Colorado has only one other month with more fatalities, and that was seven,'' Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Center, said. "We're dangerously close to breaking a record we don't want to break.''

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A 'super weak' layer of snow

Colorado's snowpack reached 88% of its seasonal average in areas where the deaths have occurred. Greene said it's not the snowpack depth that creates deadly conditions but how the snowpack sets up.

He said conditions vary across the country but generally in the Intermountain West and Rocky Mountains, there has been a "super weak'' layer of snow near the ground that fell in the fall. That was followed by a period of drier weather. More snow started piling up on the weak surface layer in mid-December, creating sensitive conditions for human-triggered avalanches. 

"Not every part of the country is experiencing these conditions, but many parts of the country are seeing different versions of the same story,'' Greene said.

He said the avalanche danger rises in every storm, then drops, "but not precipitously," during drier periods. 

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"Once we get a loading event, we are seeing the danger increase much faster,'' he said. "With a small snowstorm, we are seeing big increases in avalanche danger, much more than in a typical year.''

He said there remain places to recreate in the backcountry if proper precautions are taken. Before going into avalanche terrain, people should visit https://avalanche.org/, which offers national forecasts and conditions, he advised.

"People need to take avalanche safety seriously,'' Greene said, adding that the state's victims were all males over the age of 40 with an array of skill and experience levels in avalanche terrain. "People need to stick to the basics of checking the forecast for where they are going, then matching their plans according to conditions to identify safe travel routes even if they have been to the area before.''

Nationally, January is the deadliest month, followed by February and March, respectively.

"Avalanche danger will rise and fall with the weather, but the dangerous characteristics of avalanches are not going away this season,'' he said.

US deadly avalanche season

Here are the states that had avalanche fatalities this season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center:

  • Colorado: 10
  • Utah: 6
  • Alaska: 3
  • Montana: 2
  • Wyoming: 1
  • California: 1
  • Washington: 1
  • New Hampshire: 1

Follow reporter Miles Blumhardt on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt

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