SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The Utah Department of Transportation avalanche program crew test-fired howitzers in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

The goal of the test is to ensure the howitzers are functioning properly and prepared for the winter season, especially during inclement weather when their target areas are not visible.

These heavy machines are used to target precise areas in the mountains to create controlled avalanches, which are necessary to mitigate the risk of naturally occurring avalanches that may lead to devasting consequences.

Watch how UDOT workers go about firing the howitzer here:

“Our goal is to make sure people can travel safely in our canyons throughout the winter,” said Steven Clark, UDOT avalanche program manager. “We’re always working to keep these vital highways open as much as possible, so Utahns and visitors can get to our state’s world-class outdoor recreation areas.”  

There are around 70 avalanche paths along State Route 120, which is the road that leads to various ski resorts like Alta and Snowbird. Other roads that contain a certain degree of avalanche risk include Route 189 in Provo Canyon and State Route 190, also known as the Big Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Byway.

Aside from howitzers, UDOT said they also use explosives dropped by helicopters or placed by hand; Avalaunchers, a small explosive launcher; and remote avalanche control systems which are small towers installed on avalanche paths that use fuel and air mixtures to create small explosions.

“The howitzer is the oldest and one of our more reliable tools for mitigation,” Clark said. “But we are starting to use the howitzer less and incorporate tools called the remote avalanche control systems.”

Clark said UDOT has four howitzers that are operational year-round, and the avalanche crew fires them at least 300 times a year. These machines are usually brought out after a heavy snowfall when the risk of an avalanche increases.

“UDOT is one of the leaders in transportation avalanche mitigation,” Clark said. “We utilize the newest technologies and are always looking to incorporate new techniques and equipment to ensure safety for all canyon travelers.”