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Valley Voices article - Sheriff James Van Beek: Avalanche survival when you’re in the car

You're driving along … having waited all winter to hit the Denver outlet malls, and you see a big puff of snow, making its way down the mountain. If you've never seen one, it looks almost magical, until it hits; you're in the midst of an avalanche.

Rather than rehash mountain safety, let's focus a bit on avalanche survival in a car. We have had a historic number of avalanches occurring on major highways in Colorado and they come without warning.

The good news is that we have technology that targets occurrences, and help is immediately being dispatched to multiple first responders. In the recent Copper Mountain avalanche, the car was dug up within 10 minutes, but the driver will tell you that it was the longest 10 minutes of his life.

Richard Duran, Troop 4-C Commander, Colorado State Patrol, has some common-sense advice to motorists. Foremost, check road conditions. The most up-to-date information can be found on http://www.COTrip.org or by calling 511. Also, Twitter @ColoradoDOT and Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoDot. If your trip is not urgent, stay off the roads.

Check signs for last-minute advisories; in the mountains, circumstances change quickly. Observe anything unusual in your surroundings; you might be the first to encounter a new situation.

Keep an emergency kit in the car. The kit should contain first-aid items, jumper cables, flares or reflective triangles, an ice scraper, car cell phone charger, space blanket, map, flashlight (it's dark under snow), cat litter or sand for traction, food, water, 2-way radio, extra batteries, and if available, keep your avalanche transponder in the car when not skiing.

In the mountains, it's always a good idea to keep extra jackets and even ski pants in the car to keep warm in case you're stranded. And, if you regularly travel with family, a few games for the kids could help pass the time and reduce panic when every minute seems like an eternity.

Keep in mind that avalanches are deadly. Fatalities are generally caused by physical trauma, suffocation or hypothermia. All can occur in a submerged vehicle. Yet, the best advice is to stay calm, which conserves oxygen; and trust that help is on the way.

If you see an avalanche, don't attempt to drive through it. Evaluate circumstances: Is everyone okay? Can you see outside or are you entirely submerged? Is the hood of the car above the snow? If so, are you still on the road or in a ditch?

With that information, call 911, then your emergency contact. Make it quick, to conserve your phone battery. Activate On-Star or a similar device, if available.

Turn off the car because of carbon monoxide poisoning from a submerged tailpipe; don't be tempted to keep it on for heat.

With the car off, keep your headlights and flashers on for ease of rescuer visibility. While lights are on, charge your cell phone.

Since most people remove outdoor gear in the car, put on jackets, ski pants, hats and gloves, etc. while you are still warm, to stay that way. Have your emergency kit within reach.

Do not exit the car. If you attempt to force the door or window open, the car may fill with the pressure of the snow. Even if you can exit the car, you may be sitting on an air pocket on top of the snow and can sink upon exit.

Remember, an avalanche is not white fluffy snow. It is filled with debris, like rocks and trees, and packs with such force, it settles like cement. A car may actually be your safety cocoon.

If you’re in a little traveled, rural area with no cell reception, the situation is infinitely more dangerous. Again, don't travel unnecessarily during warnings. Be sure to let people know where you are going. If stuck, follow all the above information, but you will face making the decision of waiting for someone to drive by and noticing you, or attempting an escape. Do not try to move your car for more than a few seconds, otherwise, the friction of the tire will generate heat, which creates a snow bowl around your tire that will immediately freeze into ice, making it impossible to drive out, plus cause a buildup of carbon monoxide.

If you anticipate being there a while, and clothes are wet, remove them and wrap yourself in a blanket or any other item because hypothermia can set in quickly with wet clothing.

Please be safe. Springtime is wonderful, but a reality of mountain living is avalanche danger. You have a team of first responders that will be there for you.

James van Beek is the Eagle County Sheriff. You can reach him at james.vanbeek@eaglecounty.us.