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Are Snow Avalanches from Roofs Preventable?

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April 21, 2023

Forty years ago, an unprecedented avalanche occurred at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, California, and caused the deaths of seven people. I recently watched the 2021 documentary film Buried,1 which is a recounting by employees of Alpine Meadows of that incredible avalanche in 1982. They tried to prevent it, witnessed it, and then had to dig out their friends who were buried (Fig. 1). I was on the edge of my seat and almost brought to tears as the tragedy was explained.

As a roofing consultant for more than 30 years, I considered the similarities and differences between a mountain avalanche and avalanches of snow and ice off roofs. A wrongful death lawsuit by victims’ families against the Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol ended with a non-negligent verdict. In contrast, parties in the architecture and roofing industry are sometimes negligent when it comes to preventing snow and
ice movement on roofs. The Alpine Meadows avalanche was deemed an “unprecedented event resulting from a precedented storm,”2 but most roof avalanches are preventable. More can and should be done to prevent injury and death from snow and ice avalanches off roofs.