Huge avalanche kills 2 in Montana

January 14, 2008 10:01:31 AM PST
A huge avalanche near Whitefish Mountain Resort killed two backcountry skiers, and searchers combed the area Monday for two other possible victims. Three other people were killed over the weekend in a separate avalanche in Wyoming.

Emergency responders were alerted around noon Sunday to the avalanche on Fiberglass Hill, a popular recreation area on the opposite side of the mountain from the Whitefish Mountain Resort.

"When the mountain came down into this basin, it's about 25 to 30 feet deep in places with a lot of downed trees," Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said.

In addition to the two skiers found dead, witnesses were "adamant" that they saw two other people caught up as the snow surged down, Meehan said. But there were no reports of other people missing.

The search for the others was halted overnight and a crew of 60 to 70 searchers returned to the site Monday morning. Deputies have also been busy checking with the owners of cars parked overnight in the ski area to see if anyone was unaccounted for, Meehan said.

"So far we haven't found anything," Meehan said Monday. "We are waiting to hear of anyone else missing, or exactly what we've got."

The area is U.S. Forest Service land, outside of resort boundaries, said Donnie Clap, spokesman for Whitefish Mountain Resort.

"We set off explosions to mitigate the (avalanche) risk within our boundaries," he said. "When you ski out of bounds, you are really taking your life in your own hands."

"We're just distraught over this tragedy," he said. "It's been really hard on all of us."

In Wyoming, three men were killed Saturday when they were caught in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Star Valley south of Jackson.

The Star Valley Search and Rescue team found the men's bodies in the Cottonwood Lake area later Saturday. Authorities say Scott Bennett, Alan Jensen and Kim Steed were all from the Afton area.

Avalanches have killed at least 21 people across the West since Dec. 2, according to the National Avalanche Center. The national annual average for avalanche deaths is about 25. Thirty-five people were killed nationwide in avalanches in the 2001-2002 season, the most on record, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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On the Net:

National Avalanche Center: http://www.avalanche.org

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