Park City land, close to dramatic avalanche, presents slide dangers
February 24, 2019
A mid-February avalanche in the backcountry south of Park City that buried a skier before the man was rescued did not slide into the nearby City Hall-owned Bonanza Flat acreage, but the cascading snow was a fast-moving illustration of the complexities presented by municipal ownership of the approximately 1,350-acre tract of open space.
The avalanche occurred just east of Brighton Estates, a Wasatch County cabin community, and in the vicinity of Guardsman Pass. The slide was at an elevation of 9,000 feet close to the borders of Summit, Wasatch and Salt Lake counties. Bonanza Flat is close to the location of the avalanche as well.
City Hall acquired Bonanza Flat in 2017 in a $38 million conservation deal. It is the largest of the municipal government's conservation acquisitions as measured by acreage and is to date the most expensive. Officials continue to craft a management plan for Bonanza Flat and a document known as a conservation easement will eventually outline the types of uses that will be allowed on the land.
Leaders are expected to allow non-motorized wintertime recreation on Bonanza Flat, such as cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. The recreation lovers, though, will be on land that is largely surrounded by mountains with steep terrain in several locations in Bonanza Flat itself. Heinrich Deters, the trails and open space program manager at City Hall, said he is not aware of an avalanche on Bonanza Flat since the municipal government acquired the land.
Deters said officials are considering steps City Hall could take to protect people from avalanches on Bonanza Flat. As an example, he said, cross-country skiing trails will be put in places that are not prone to avalanches. He also said officials could post signs warning people of the danger of avalanches. Deters said perhaps City Hall could provide areas for people headed into Bonanza Flat to test avalanche beacons prior to them entering the land.
"It has different terrain. The topography's different," Deters said, comparing Bonanza Flat to Round Valley, a large piece of City Hall-owned open space that is known for rolling terrain.
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Deters said the management plan will eventually address the danger of avalanches on Bonanza Flat. Deters said details have not been finalized. The plan could provide information about the Bonanza Flat terrain that is prone to avalanches, educational materials and possible safety measures.
"Elevation. Storms move in quickly. … It's just a different climate up there," he said about the land.
City Hall plans to build trailheads for summertime routes in the spring, and in summer and fall the municipal government could consider policies regarding wintertime access to Bonanza Flat.
"All public access and recreation is up to the individual to be safe," Deters said.
Bonanza Flat's location in Wasatch County puts the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office as the law enforcement agency that responds to incidents on the land rather than the Park City Police Department. The Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue unit would be summoned to Bonanza Flat if an avalanche occurs. Deters said City Hall will consider entering into an agreement with the public safety agencies in Wasatch County addressing law enforcement and safety issues regarding Bonanza Flat.
"There's a lot of terrain up in that basin … that is steep enough to trigger an avalanche that could kill you," said Kam Kohler, the commander of the Search and Rescue unit in Wasatch County.
He called Bonanza Flat a "high hazard zone" for avalanches, describing there are "dozens and dozens of spots up there that could trigger an avalanche." Kohler urged people not to head into Bonanza Flat alone. It could take between 30 minutes and 40 minutes for a Search and Rescue unit to reach someone in Bonanza Flat, he estimated. Kohler said the Search and Rescue unit has been called to the vicinity of Bonanza Flat once this winter, to assist with a snowmobile crash. The crash did not occur on the City Hall-owned land.
"This is not a city park. You're going into the backcountry," Kohler said.