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Deadly roof designs

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The fracture line from an Anchorage avalanche that dropped hundreds of pounds of snow on a Hillside deck/Craig Medred photo

UPDATE: The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner late on Monday reported that the child had died. The report came with snow again falling in parts of Alaska’s largest city. It was mixed with rain in other parts making snow on Anchorage roofs even heavier and more prone to avalanche.

 

A four-year-old North Pole girl is reported to be in an Anchorage hospital after nearly dying in the most easily overlooked of avalanches – the ones that come off building roofs.

Alaska State Troopers report they were contacted Saturday afternoon by a resident of the Fairbanks suburb identified only as “Joanna” who said she could not find her 4-year-old granddaughter.

“Joanna began the search after a large amount of snow broke free of the metal roof on her residence,” according to a trooper dispatch. 

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the North Star Volunteer Fire Department believes the girl was buried for at least eight minutes. She was not breathing when found under about five feet of snow, and she had no pulse.

But emergency medical technicians with the North Star department were able to revive her. She was rushed to the emergency room of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where she was stabilized before being air-evacuated to Anchorage, according to troopers.

Deadly roofs

The dangers of roof avalanches in the snowiest parts of Alaska are well-known. Just a little over two months ago, the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center was warning residents of Girdwood, a ski community about 30 miles east of Alaska’s largest city, of the danger.

The warning came in the wake of a January thaw which followed a month of heavy snowfall.

“Heads up Girdwood,” a Girdwood avalanche forecaster warned then. “Roofs are loaded with 2-3 feet of dense snow and rising temperatures above 32F today through Friday will make these unsupported slopes unstable. There is enough snow to bury a child or pet, seriously injure an adult, or damage a vehicle. Talk to your kids and spread the word.”

The deadly danger of roof avalanches hits close to home for Chugach avalanche forecasters.

Twenty-nine-year-old Jeff Nissman, a Chugach avalanche technician, died in 2004 when he walked out of a Forest Service work center in the community of Portage, just miles down the Seward Highway from Girdwood, and was hit by an avalanche of snow and ice.

An estimated 650-pounds of it crushed him.

Jill Fredston, an Alaska avalanche expert, at the time noted the problem of bad design in Alaska buildings that position metal roofs, which are especially prone to avalanche, to dump their loads in places where people walk.

“”It’s quite interesting, if you drive around town, to see the number of problems,” she said. “I would like to know the number of roof (avalanche) fatalities. We’ve had a number of these. … It’s such a sad deal.”

How often?

Deaths and injuries in roof avalanches are not statistics tracked by the state, so nobody really knows how many people have died or been injured by snow sliding off metal roofs.

But it’s clear that too many Alaska roofs dump onto decks, walkways, driveways or other areas where people could get buried.

North Star Fire Chief Robert Wells told the News-Miner that the family of the young girl in North Pole was leaving grandma’s house with the child first out the door. Her parents then heard the thunder of snow avalanching off the roof. The volume of snow was so great it blocked shut the door to the deck.

“They had to kick out the glass (of the storm door) to get outside,” Wells told the News-Miner. “Calling 911 without delaying really helped . We had a huge area we were searching. The whole deck – the whole back side of the house – was buried. It was a large area to search. This would be similar to an avalanche. The father actually located the child’s hand.”

Residents of Fairbanks living in houses with metal roofs were being warned to be aware of heavy snow loads. The same could be said for anyone living anywhere else in the state.

The News-Miner suggested people with metal roofs should make sure large amounts of snow don’t accumulate there, but that isn’t always easy to do. Shoveling steep roofs can be dangerous.

A simpler solution is to cordon off areas where the snow is likely to fall if it avalanches, although bad home designs sometimes make that impossible. Architects say the problem could be solved by building codes that recognize the danger of metal roofs in places like Alaska that regularly get heavy snow.

But most building codes ignore the potential danger.

“Death by icicle is not fun,” roofing contractor Joseph Jenkins wrote in 2011 in Interface, a magazine published by the international association of building envelope consultants. “Reports from such snowbound locations as St. Petersburg, Russia, bear this out, where falling ice killed five people and injured 150 more, including babies and children, in one recent winter. In 2001, 74 Moscow residents were victims of falling ice. In Chicago last winter, falling ice caused the closure of several streets and forced at least one bus route to be changed after people were injured and cars were damaged by ice and snow avalanching off downtown roofs. Perhaps the most famous incident took place at the Cowboys Stadium in Texas during Super Bowl week last year when several workers were injured by falling ice and snow.”

Jenkins offered a lot of advice on ‘snow guards,’ which are designed to keep snow from sliding off roofs, and noted that  “building codes do not govern these products or their density, placement, or spacing on roofs. Instead, a consumer must review the wide selection of snow retention devices and systems and decide which type to use and how to install them.”

Thirteen years ago, Fredston said this in the wake of Nissman’s death:

“It’s happened before, and it will probably happen again.”

Sadly, she was proven right. On Sunday many had their fingers crossed that the final outcome this time would be better.

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