WHITEFISH – Rescue personnel continued Monday morning to search for two possible victims of a huge Sunday avalanche that killed two backcountry skiers near here.
A team began blasting on Fiberglass Hill, so search efforts could continue safely in the area, according to Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan.
Emergency responders were alerted around noon Sunday to the avalanche at a popular recreation area on the opposite side of Whitefish Mountain Resort. More than 100 search and rescue people were quickly called to the scene.
The search was called off overnight because of encroaching fog and an overhanging ridge of snow that still hadn’t cut loose and could be dangerous to the rescue teams, Meehan said.
The snowmobilers who reported the avalanche said they saw two victims killed in the slide, as well as two other skiers caught in the snow lower down in the canyon.
Meehan told the Missoulian newspaper that the snowmobilers were “adamant” they saw the additional skiers in the massive slide area. But no one else has been reported missing.
Deputies have been busy checking with the owners of cars parked overnight at the ski are to make sure they made it back to their hotels. At the same time, 60 to 70 searchers will continue probing the huge slide area.
“When the mountain came down into this basin, it’s about 25 to 30 feet deep in places with a lot of downed trees,” Meehan said.
He said searchers are first probing, then removing layers of snow until they work through the slide area.
“We are waiting to hear of anyone else missing, or exactly what we’ve got,” Meehan said.
Meehan said the names of the two victims are not being released until they can notify relatives.
The slide occurred about 210 miles northwest of Helena on U.S. Forest Service land outside the boundaries of the Whitefish Mountain Resort, said resort spokesman Donnie Clap.
“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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