Colorado’s governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 21-245 on Sunday, June 27, which will bring greater structure to the already well-established search and rescue system in Colorado. This bill was initiated by this season’s historic avalanche cycle that was felt in Colorado’s backcountry and throughout the country. It was signed at Bonfire Brewing in Eagle, CO—home to three men who were killed in an avalanche on February 1st, 2021. The bill enacts a plan to further develop a state-wide structure for search and rescue teams. The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife will study individual agencies and develop recommendations on coordination between agencies as well as increased funding.
This bill was sadly brought to the attention of Governor Polis due to the deaths of Andy Jessen, Adam Palmer, and Seth Bossung. Jessen was cofounder of Bonfire Brewing and Palmer and Bossung were residents of Eagle, Colorado who were deeply involved in local government. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the avalanche was a soft slab avalanche that was 1,000 feet wide that ran 1,500 vertical feet. The slide ran into a narrow gully that created a debris field twenty feet deep. There was a layer of faceted snow from January 22nd below an 18-inch layer of newer snow. The day of the avalanche was the warmest day since December which increased the likelihood of a slide, and it occurred on a slope facing northeast to the east to southeast.
The accident happened in an area called The Nose between Crystal Lake and the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek near Silverton. A group of seven experienced backcountry skiers was involved in the accident, and it is likely a communication error played a role in the three deaths. Some of the surviving members of the party report they expected the group to gather at the knob before skiing into the gully one at a time. However, four skiers entered the gully before the rest of the group was together, thus creating a situation where the slide buried three of the skiers before they were visible to the rest of the group. The fourth skier was visible thanks to his airbag that was sticking out of the snow when the slide stopped. The crew sent an SOS signal and dug for four hours before heading back to a hut where they started their tour. Search and rescue was able to recover the three remaining bodies after two days of removing avalanche debris. Everyone in the group carried the appropriate backcountry equipment.
Colorado Search and Rescue (CSAR) is to thank for recovering the bodies of Jessen, Palmer, and Bossung. CSAR is a non-profit organization that coordinates, educates, and advocates for Colorado’s volunteer backcountry search and rescue teams. Their mission is “to empower every search and rescue team and partner in Colorado to accomplish their goals and duties better through advocacy, coordination, collaboration, and education.” Members of these teams volunteer out of their desire to keep people safe while recreating in the backcountry and often pay from their own pockets to provide these services. They are on call 24/7 and have to endure an incredible amount of stress from search and rescue operations. 2018 saw over four million outdoor overnight trips compared to under two million in 2000 within Colorado. The need for their services is increasing yearly. Funding for this organization is $350,00 from the Department of Local Affairs. Spread that across the 50 teams in the state with its 2,800 volunteers, and not much is left to go around. Check out CSAR’s informational video.
Senate Bill 21-245 will facilitate efficient communication between local search and rescue teams, determine the adequacy of resources available to volunteers, provide educational resources to new volunteers, and provide additional funds to agencies. These needs will be determined by a study conducted by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Jeff Sparhawk from the Colorado Search and Rescue Association saw a need for this bill and helped show the importance of it to the state legislature. Sparhawk long with Gov. Polis and State Senator Kerry Donovan acknowledged that worldwide interest in visiting Colorado is rapidly increasing, and the state needs to be ready to meet those demands. According to Vail Daily News, they have deemed this a “gut-check bill” that has brought the voice of the mountains to the state capitol.
The signing of this bill signifies the state’s interest in keeping its communities safe. Promoting unity between CSAR’s agencies will strengthen teams’ ability to respond with better outcomes to all those involved in times of crisis. Coloradans should be proud to know their government has the people’s best interest at the forefront of policy change.