By Keith Coffman
DENVER, March 31 (Reuters) - Two workers helping mitigate the risk of avalanches on a Colorado mountain pass were injured on Monday when a mortar shell used to trigger controlled snow slides to prevent larger ones exploded prematurely, officials said.
The accident occurred just after sunrise on Loveland Pass, a high snow slide area where five snowboarders were killed last April in an avalanche, said Tony Devito, a regional director with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The two workers, who were not identified, were taken off the mountainside and transported by ambulance to a Denver-area hospital, where a spokeswoman said one was in serious condition and the other in fair condition.
DeVito said the three-person crew had been using an "Avalauncher," a device the state has used for decades to trigger controlled avalanches down slide-prone chutes in the Colorado mountains, when something went awry.
The device uses compressed gas to fire explosive shells to targeted areas. The charge detonated inside the barrel of the launcher.
"We are taking this situation very seriously and will be looking into how to improve the safety of our crew members during avalanche reduction practices," DeVito said, adding that
road crews perform routinely perform avalanche mitigation work throughout the winter in the slide-prone state.
Twenty-six people have been killed in avalanches in eight Western states so far this season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, closing in on a 10-year annual average of 28 fatalities. Avalanche seasons typically last through late spring.
The latest fatality occurred on Sunday when a snowmobiler was caught in a snow slide on Paulina Peak in central Oregon, the center said. (Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Dan Grebler)