By Ian Cobb
East Kootenay Online Weekly
FERNIE — In recent years, a new trend has become clear in British Columbia’s backcountry, as more and more snowmobilers are being killed.
As a result, the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is launching the Mountain Snowmobile Education Project, thanks to federal, provincial and municipal government funding, announced Jan. 20 in a brief ceremony in Fernie.
East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett said the $689,000 going to the CAC (over three years) will help establish a program that will help educate backcountry snowmobilers on the perils of avalanches and in avalanche preparation and safety measures.
“It’s important for us to recognize what has happened in the last 30 years, 20 years and 10 years,” Bennett said, noting that 30 years ago snowmobilers accounted for one-quarter of all recorded avalanche deaths. Ten years later that number had risen to 38% of all deaths. In 2008/09, the year of the Sparwood tragedy, 73% of all avalanche fatalities were snowmobile-related.
“At the same time that trend line for other sports is going down,” Bennett said, adding he hopes the funding helps the CAC “reverse that trend line” for snowmobilers.
Bennett highlighted the tourism benefits realized from snowmobilers coming to the province, pointing out he saw a truck full of sleds with Saskatchewan plates on his way to Fernie. He said he hoped the visitors were avalanche savvy.
“We hope they get the brochures and take the time” to become aware of the dangers inherent in the mountains. “These machines that they have today are unbelievable. They’re like rocket-ships. It’s a dangerous sport,” he said.
Kootenay-Columbia MP David Wilks, who was Sparwood’s mayor in 2008, and received high praise for his handling of the tragedy that swept through the town and region, noted he knows “too well the tragedy of avalanches.”
Along with the 2008 avalanche, Wilks was the lead officer (RCMP) in charge of another multi-fatality avalanche in the Bugaboos in 1991, when nine heli-skiers perished in a massive slide.
“I witnessed, first hand, the power of an avalanche,” he said, adding he’s proud to be able to represent the federal government in contributing to the program.
Federal funds are coming from the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS), which is a department of National Defence.
“NSS grants are just one way that the Government of Canada has made its contributions to public avalanche safety. Environment Canada – through Parks Canada and the Meteorological Service of Canada – is also a long-time supporter of the CAC. We are pleased to support programs and services that provide a public safety net and enrich the lives of Canadians and our visitors,” Wilks said.
CAC executive director Ian Tomm said the funding boost will allow his organization to expand on an already “impressive suite of programs.
“Last year we saw a big jump in training among mountain sledders, along with a tremendous shift in attitude towards avalanche safety. We look forward to continuing to work closely with clubs and organizations to increase the avalanche knowledge base and skill level within this community,” Tomms said.
Fernie was selected as the site to make the funding announcement because it was the first municipality in the province to provide the CAC with funds.
“We all know our mountains can bring tragedy. Sadly, our region has had more than its share of avalanche tragedies over the years,” said City of Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano. “The CAC’s avalanche forecast for this region is a highly valued product for many of our residents, as well as our visitors. Public avalanche safety affects all of us who live in B.C.”
Fernie Snowmobile Association president Paul Kramer agreed, noting how snow conditions in the Elk Valley are different than elsewhere in the province.
“We are getting more pertinent information on the area with more specific information. It’s very welcome news,” he said of the CAC program launch. “They recognize there is a need for better avalanche projection in this area.”
Fledgling Elk Valley Snowmobile Club president Dan Rotella said he is looking forward to learning more about what CAC will be providing.
“I think this is great,” he said.
Ian Cobb is the editor and publisher of the East Kootenay News Online Weekly