Pilot Project Underway for Avalanche Centre

Trent Ernst, Editor

Let’s face it. The chance of getting caught in an avalanche around Dawson Creek is slim to none. But as you move west into the Rockies, the mountains get taller and steeper, and the risk of an avalanche occurring goes up exponentially.

In the past decade, there have been a number of people caught in avalanches in the Tumbler Ridge area, including a couple of fatalities, the most recent of which happened two years ago, when a snowmobiler was killed in the Pyramid Mountain area.

Snomobilers are the most at-risk group for avalanche incidence, reports the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC), who have produced avalanche forecasts for the mountainous areas around BC and Alberta for a number of years.

For all the mountainous areas, that is, save for the Northern Rockies.

However, that may be changing. This year a Pilot Project has been launched for the Northern Rockies to see if it’s possible to get enough sources of data to make a go of the project.

“Creating an avalanche forecast for the North Rockies has been a dream of ours for many years,” says Karl Klassen, acting Executive Director of the CAC. “This region encompasses many popular winter recreational areas, where public safety can be increased through better avalanche forecasts. Today, through this generous funding, we can start work on defining the future for avalanche safety in the North Rockies.”

The pilot project is being funded to the tune of $50,000 by the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, as well as $25,000 from the Apache Corporation, who also donated two remote weather stations, valued at $25,000 total.

The Northern Rockies is the name given to a sprawling area that takes in mountainous terrain on both sides of the BC/Alberta boundary. Its southernmost point is defined by Highway 16 between Prince George and the Alberta boundary, including the northern half of Mount Robson Provincial Park. The area excludes Jasper National Park (which has its own forecast), and Wilmore Wildland, but includes areas around Grande Cache and into the Kakwa Wildlands. The region extends northward, covering the Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd area (but excluding Dawson Creek) to its northern boundary, which is defined by the Peace Reach of Williston Lake. Its westernmost boundary follows Highway 97 north from Prince George to Mackenzie.

Over the 2012 and 2013 season, CAC personnel have been making field trips into the Northern Rockies, looking for locations to establish the weather stations, studying where people actually go to snowmobile as well as other backcountry activities like skiing and snowshoeing.

25 people turned out for the avalanche course held in Dawson Creek. Submitted photo.

Up to now, the CAC has provided a weekly condition report. Issued every Thursday, these reports provide information on past snowpack and weather conditions, an analysis of current conditions as best as can be determined, and some very general advice on what might occur in the near future.

The CAC has been unable to provide the northern Rockies the same details seen in daily forecasts for other regions, such as danger ratings and avalanche character, because there is insufficient data upon which to base such a product. The weekly North Rockies Conditions Report relies on data from neighbouring regions, along with the occasional reports from professionals and amateurs in the area.

Carole Savage is one of the two people travelling through the region. She is the Snowmobile Program Coordinator for the CAC. “Avalanche forecasts are reliant on data from the Ministry of Transportation, from backcountry lodges, from professionals working in the area and from amateur observations,” says Savage. “There’s a lot that goes on when a forecast is created. The biggest thing is that we don’t have those information sources in the North Rockies. It really comes down to data.”

While part of her current mission is to find sources of data, she warns local riders shouldn’t get their hopes up too high if they’re expecting a daily forecast like other areas. “We’ve been traveling all over the north this season, myself and Grant Helgeson, who is the program lead,” says Savage. “We’ve been travelling through the communities, touching base with stakeholders. We’ve got some really good background information. But what we’re doing with the project is determining what sort of products would be most effective for the region. It depends on the finding of the report and what our budget is.”

Which means that come 2014, there still might not be an avalanche report for this area. “We’re looking at where to establish those remote weather stations and coming up with some ideas as to what our options. It doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get a daily bulletin; but the thing you need to know is that we’re very solution focused. The pilot program is designed to lay the groundwork for future avalanche forecasting for the region.”

Savage says that right now, she can’t comment on what the options might be, as they still have a lot of winter left and a lot of research to do.

“So far, we’ve been into the Kakwa area, been into Tumbler Ridge, though only to one of the riding areas there,” says Savage. “We’ve visited some of the riding areas in the Pine Pass and down to McBride. We still have more areas to visit. We haven’t been to Mackenzie, for instance. We want to touch base with snowmobile clubs, search and rescue organizations. We’re basically talking to stakeholders.”

Savage says in her time here, she’s been pleased to see so many people out using the mountains. “What’s important for me is that people carry the proper rescue equipment. It’s really important to identify avalanche terrain, and to be prepared.” She also says that, while her time out on hills has been great, one of the best things has been meeting the people. “One of the highlights has been how welcoming the community is. Tumbler Ridge has a special place in my heart with Jeff Cool donating the trailer and the District donating the vehicle.”

Savage says she expects that they’ll have a final report ready for May, leaving plenty of time for the CAC to implement whatever they are planning for the next season.