Public Safety Minister says BC “will learn from this” avalanche

The provincial government will do what it can to prevent more needless deaths in the wake of the Boulder Mountain avalanche that killed two snowmobilers and injured 31, BC Public Safety Minister Kash Heed said Sunday. Flanked by Kyle Hale of the Golden SAR unit (left) and RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk (right) Heed also said he was impressed by the way the local community responded to the avalanche that killed two people and injured 31. David F. Rooney photo

By David F. Rooney

The provincial government will do what it can to prevent more needless deaths in the wake of the Boulder Mountain avalanche that killed two snowmobilers and injured 31, BC Public Safety Minister Kash Heed said Sunday.

“We will learn from this,” he told reporters at a news conference Sunday afternoon. “I can tell you that the ministries that have an interest in this have been meeting and on conference calls since yesterday… as we go forward we’ll see what we can do.

“There are areas that government will look at. We did learn from the Death Panel Review on Avalanches… and we’ll continue to learn from that.”

The Death Panel Review he was referring to is a BC Coronors Service report on the 19 avalanche-related deaths that occurred in BC during the winter of 2008-2009. It contained 14 recommendations that were agreed to by industry stakeholders. They include more stringent training and public awareness programs.

The avalanche was definitely “human triggered” and is being investigated by both the Mounties and the BC Coroners Service, said RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk.

He also said that a day-long search of the area, characterized as “highly contaminated” by smashed snowmobiles and other debris, was conducted by 40 Search and Rescue specialists from Parks Canada and SAR units from Revelstoke, Golden, Nelson and the Arrow Lakes. Their work with probes and dogs did not turn up any other bodies. A final sweep of the area is to be conducted on Monday.

As for the identities of the two dead sledders, Moskaluk said he could not release their names at this time.

He was confident that the police have accounted for everyone who had been at the event as officers went door-to-door at hotels and motels across the city looking for people who had been at the event.

One local police officer who went door-to-door Saturday said he had never seen anything like it.

“A lot of these people were traumatized,” he said. “Grown men were hugging and crying. It was unreal. We talked to one girl who had been up there with no gear and no Peeps beacon — no nothing. She was buried and didn’t know which way was up. She figured, ‘Okay… I’m done.’”

Moskaluk said the RCMP wants to speak with anyone who helped organize the Big Iron Shoot Out event that was being held at the alpine area called Turbo Bowl.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre had issued a special warning on Friday that backcountry snow conditions were “very dangerous.”

“Conditions in the mountains for the past six or seven weeks have been very tricky,” Karl Klassen of the Canadian Avalanche Centre told reporters at a news conference Sunday morning. “Those layers were more heavily loaded by snow than had originally been forecast. The snowpack yesterday was stabilizing, although still very unstable in most areas. I came out of the mountains last night. We had a very active avalanche cycle. The snowpack is still very unstable.”

Heed was impressed by the local community’s response to the avalanche.

“Seconds after the incident, calls were made for assistance… from the very people who live and work in this community,” Heed said after taking a helicopter over-flight of the avalanche debris field.

“They were the first to leave everything to come and assist. Because of them we are very lucky there were not many more lives lost in this unfortunate incident. That is something I and the rest of the people of British Columbia can be very, very proud of.”

And Revelstokians did respond.

Dr. Sarah Brown said Queen Victoria Hospital staff braced for a wave of “mass casualties” as initial reports suggested that perhaps as many as 100 people could be on their way to the hospital.

“Every nurse in town came to the hospital and we had six doctors here,” she said

Moskaluk said the avalanche was 150 metres wide, a kilometer in length and about 10 metres deep.

Thirty-one people went through the hospital’s emergency department Saturday starting at about 4 pm, she said.

“I think the atmosphere was chaotic, but people responded in a cool, controlled and professional manner,” Brown said.

“Most of the people we saw had been buried and even so they could be discharged after treatment for their other injuries, which is a real tribute to the speed with which people dug them out.”

Not only did local residents assist in the search people came to the local Community Centre where the local emergency services staff set up a media room, and information desk offering to help in any way they could. Both Tim Hortons and the local A&W put together platters of food, coffee and other foods for emergency personnel and the news media.