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Volunteers shovel the street near an avalanche that demolished a home and buried three people in the lower Rattlesnake Valley in February as emergency responders looked for a natural gas shutoff.

An avalanche expert from Alaska visited Missoula to teach city firefighters how to better respond to urban avalanches, coordinate search and rescue, and harness the horsepower of volunteers who rush to the scene to help.

The training classes were lead by Tom Mattice, the emergency programs manager for the City and Borough of Juneau. He works with experts from around the world, including avalanche zones in Iceland and Switzerland, to develop better plans on how to respond to slides in urban areas.

The training in Missoula is part of a cooperation between the Missoula Fire Department, the Missoula County Office of Emergency management and the West Central Montana Avalanche Center, and comes almost a year after a fatal avalanche slide down Mount Jumbo into the Rattlesnake neighborhood.

Mattice said although it has yet to experience a massive urban slide, Juneau has the largest potential urban avalanche zone in the country.

“Juneau has 62 homes, a boat harbor and a hotel in an avalanche path. That means there could be 11 feet of snow coming at 55 miles per hour coming through neighborhoods on a bad day,” he said.

In the past, smaller slides have hit dozens of homes at a time, and Mattice said he’s seen them knock houses clean off their foundations.

Mattice got his start in avalanche training in Missoula while working on the ski patrol at Snowbowl for five years in the 1990s. He came to teach the seminar as part of a volunteer effort to increase the city and county’s urban avalanche readiness.

While the first inclination is to get as many people to the site of an avalanche where people could be buried and start digging and searching, Mattice said there are other concerns, like the possibility of a second slide, that trained responders need to take into account. Trained first responders need to be able to arrive and control a scene.

“The fire department has to, on a very regular basis, decide how many to put into attack mode, and how many to put into safety and backup,” he said.

After an urban avalanche, Mattice said volunteers always will be on scene before fire department responders get there. While no one can be fully prepared for an avalanche and the chaos that can follow, he said the first thing to do is get the public’s attention and focus their abilities on making a search and rescue operation more effective.

“Fifty well-trained volunteers can do the job better than 400 spontaneous volunteers,” Mattice said. “You need to make sure you’re not searching the same area twice, duplicating effort, shoveling the same snow twice because it didn’t get put in the right place.”

First responders can help by quickly assessing the skills of the volunteers at the scene. If they have backcountry experience or know how to use probes, get them started on that to narrow down the search area.

“We also talked about where to set up incident command posts, where to set up spotters for follow-up slides,” Mattice said.

On Saturday, Mattice took a team of Missoula firefighters for a field day session at Snowbowl to provide firsthand instruction on search methods, the use of avalanche beacons and probes, shoveling and extrication.

“In the afternoon, we do a live drill. We’ve buried a whole bunch of ‘people’ and we’ll say there’s been an avalanche. Go,” Mattice said.

Unlike in the backcountry, where the chance of survival drops quickly after a person has been under the snow for 20 or 30 minutes, Mattice said people have survived for weeks if they were caught in a pocket of open space in an urban avalanche.

While the main part of the training focused on avalanche response, Mattice also touched on avalanche mitigation, which focused on educating the public about where avalanche danger is high, and having a continually updated avalanche forecast in places where there is the potential for a slide. He also said it’s important for neighborhoods in these areas to look out for each other.

“When Joe leaves town, he tells Dave, so we’re not looking for Joe because he is in Texas,” Mattice said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.