Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bellevue flooded, Ketchum snowed in

Storms bring big runoff, avalanche danger


Skiers head for Bald Mountain on Saturday morning, taking advantage of heavy snowfall from the latest storm cycle. Avalanche danger closed parts of the mountain Saturday and Sunday. Photo by Roland Lane

By MATT FURBER and KATHERINE WUTZ

Express Staff Writers

Sun Valley and Ketchum celebrated almost 3 feet of new snow last week, but the city of Bellevue declared a state of emergency Tuesday as a result of rain and flooding that brought the town to a standstill this weekend.

Bellevue citizens banded together over the weekend to divert water threatening to flood the town, using loaders and sandbags to redirect runoff while the Bellevue Fire Department helped pump water out of the street.

Bellevue Mayor Chris Koch, a special-education teacher at Wood River High School, said the volunteer effort to protect property by pumping and diverting water from the sudden field runoff was a community effort.

"It came together really well," Koch said. "The amazing volunteer work of our community once again stepped up. We had over a hundred people out there filling sandbags."

Chuck Turner, Blaine County disaster services coordinator, said during a County Commission meeting Tuesday that the main cause of the flooding was runoff from snow in the hills around Slaughterhouse Canyon east of the city.

Turner said there had been flooding in Hailey as well as Bellevue, with water running onto Gannett and Baseline roads, as well as portions of Main Street in Bellevue.

"We've had sheet flooding in all portions of the southern valley," he said. "But right now, everything is being addressed. [Bellevue residents] are handling it all on their own, being industrious and creative and using volunteers."

Sheet flooding occurs when rain or runoff hits the frozen ground, which prevents the excess water from going into the ground and draining off.

Though warm temperatures prevailed last week, they weren't warm enough to defrost the soil. However, high temperatures in Bellevue are forecast to be in the low 50s this weekend.

"As this weather warms up, maybe we'll get some of this ground frost letting go," Turner said.

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Bellevue declared an emergency Tuesday, but Turner said the city was not asking for any aid or equipment.

"They are stable, but this allows them to do some realignment of funding within the city budget," he told commissioners.

Koch said the flooding that crossed Gannett Road south of Bellevue had been reduced to a trickle by Saturday with the volunteer effort.

"This is a 50-year or a 100-year event," he said. "The water had nowhere to go but horizontally. That ground just got rock-solid, like when you spill water on the counter, but our counter has a little bit of a slant to it."

Turner and Koch agreed that more flooding is possible for Bellevue and even Hailey as temperatures climb again. The outcome depends on how quickly the ground thaws, whether Mother Nature delivers more precipitation and how water is released from the mountains this spring.

In the meantime, Bellevue has set aside extra sandbags.

"I can't thank people enough for their help," Koch said. "It's just the camaraderie. There was a strong sense of community and I want to thank everyone."

Up north

While Bellevue dealt with flooding caused by the late-season storms, the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center was busy urging skiers to stay out of the backcountry after a heavy snowfall overloaded an older layer of faceted snow.

"Pretty much our entire area was pretty unstable," said center Director Chris Lundy. "Even without a weak layer, that much load is unstable. It's a lot of snow to stick to anything."

Lundy said skiers seemed to be aware of the dangers and the center did not receive any reports of people caught in slides.

"With the snowfall as dramatic as it was, that probably made the danger a little more obvious," he said.

Like the leaders of Bellevue, Lundy said he is concerned about warmer temperatures predicted for later this week.

Temperatures are set to reach 49 degrees in Ketchum by Thursday and into the low 50s by the weekend, accompanied by rain.

"At this point, if it warms up dramatically, that's going to increase the avalanche danger," Lundy said.




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