Sierra Avalanche Center - A Success Story

Release Date: Apr 6, 2009

Contact:   Debby Broback

Sierra Avalanche Center — A Success Story with the Tahoe National Forest

Truckee — It all started six years ago. A small group of local back country enthusiasts and avalanche experts met to discuss the future of backcountry avalanche forecasting and advisories in and around Lake Tahoe and the Truckee area. For over 25 years, the backcountry forecasting was done by the local "Snow Ranger," Bob Moore out of the Truckee Ranger District office on the Tahoe National Forest. Bob was planning for retirement and the Forest Service budget for this type of work was shrinking even as backcountry use was increasing. Seeing the need for consistent, accurate and timely backcountry avalanche forecasting the group put their heads together, came up with a plan and a name, and the Sierra Avalanche Center was born. The Sierra Avalanche Center, or SAC, as it is fondly known by its users is a not-for-profit organization run by an all volunteer Board of Directors. The mission of the Sierra Avalanche Center includes disseminating current snow pack stability information to the general public; providing educational information, knowledge, and understanding of avalanches to recreational users and groups; and facilitating communication in the region to reduce the impact of avalanches on recreation, industry, and transportation through a partnership with the USDA Forest Service.

Over the last ten years backcountry use has exploded. Backcountry recreation isn�t just for the locals on skinny skis with leather boots anymore. With improvements in backcountry gear of all kinds including snowboards, skis and over-the-snow vehicles, access to areas never dreamed about in the past has become a reality. With Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay area and Reno all within a short drive to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the area serviced by the Sierra Avalanche Center avalanche advisory has become a daily playground for thousands of people. While the area is beautiful, the snow pack also has the potential for danger, hence the need for a daily avalanche advisory.

Photo Caption:  Avalanche Forecaster Brandon Schwartz studies the layers in a snow pit to determine backcountry conditions.  Layers as far back as the first snows of December can have an effect on avalanche conditions throughout the winter and into the spring.

Currently Sierra Avalanche Center, partnered with the Tahoe National Forest, provides the salaries for two full-time Forest Service Avalanche Forecasters through the winter. This is a far cry from the days when the partnership first started and the one part-time forecaster never knew from month to month if he would be getting a paycheck. From the first snowfall of the year in the fall through April the following spring, the forecasters provide a daily avalanche advisory. The advisory covers the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains between Yuba Pass on the north to Ebbetts Pass on the south. The advisory area also includes the very popular Donner Pass, Carson Pass and Mount Rose near Reno, Nevada. The Tahoe National Forest alone could not financially support two full-time forecasters needed to provide a daily advisory. Sierra Avalanche Center on its own does not have the needed infrastructure to support the program. But with the two partners working together, a beneficial relationship continues to evolve. At this time, the Tahoe National Forest provides the majority of the infrastructure to support the forecasters such as office space, computers, phones, a 4WD vehicle, supervision and a means to hire and provide coverage for liability while on the job. Sierra Avalanche Center currently provides the majority of the funds for salaries, training, travel expenses, equipment needs and safety gear. The vast majority of funding for SAC comes from private donations and fund raising events. Sierra Avalanche Center and the partnership with the Tahoe National Forest could not exist without the support of many businesses. Local ski areas including Sugarbowl, Mt. Rose, Kirkwood, Northstar at Tahoe, Heavenly, and Alpine Meadows continue to be big supporters of SAC with their donations of lift tickets for the "Ski and Ride for SAC Days." Thin Air Motorsports in Truckee donated two snowmobiles for the last two seasons giving the forecasters access to a vast area that before was unattainable due to time constraints.

Photo Caption:   Avalanche Forecaster Brandon Schwartz studies the layers in a snow pit to determine backcountry conditions. Layers as far back as the first snows of December can have an effect on avalanche conditions throughout the winter and into the spring.

There have been many developments and improvements since SAC and the Tahoe National Forest started working together. The Board of Directors has grown from 8 to 13 highly skilled, enthusiastic and talented individuals. Bob Moore, the original Forest Service forecaster, now officially retired, has become a Board member and states "I am really proud to have been with SAC from its beginning and it's great to see how far SAC has come." Ex-Board members, Forest Service representatives, and many others also volunteer time and energy to SAC. In addition to the two full-time forecasters, SAC is now able to contract with two part-time field observers to help cover such a large geographic area. The SAC website has improved and is consistent with other avalanche centers across the nation. The advisory is updated daily during the winter months. Many agencies and individuals now depend on this service on a daily basis, including the National Weather Service with whom a strong relationship has developed. The SAC website——has a very loyal following amongst local and regional backcountry user groups. Averaging over 30,000 unique visitors during the winter months, more than 3,500 visits a day during significant storm cycles, and over 200,000 visits for the 2008/09 season, the free, daily on-line advisory has become a trusted and essential tool for backcountry travelers. SAC has become a household name to users from the San Francisco Bay area to Reno, Nevada. It�s not just for locals anymore!

So, whether on a board, snowshoes, skis or an over-the-snow vehicle, before you head out to enjoy the backcountry of the Central Sierra Nevada mountains, �Know before you go!� For the latest avalanche advisory visit or for a voice recording call (530) 587-2158. If you use the SAC advisory on a regular basis consider donating to the Center. SAC accepts tax-deductible charitable donations via its website at