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5 avalanche deaths this month: B.C. urging extreme caution in backcountry

Click to play video: 'Avalanche risk in B.C., Alberta mountains at 20-year high'
Avalanche risk in B.C., Alberta mountains at 20-year high
WATCH: The risk of deadly avalanches in Alberta and B.C. is at a 20-year high. A stretch of cold and dry weather has led to an unstable snowpack throughout the region. As Heather Yourex-West explains, snowslides have already killed five people in the last few weeks.

Five people have now died this month in B.C. avalanches, including two on Monday near Revelstoke.

On Tuesday, the province issued a statement asking backcountry users to be extremely cautious when heading out, saying there continues to be “high and considerable avalanche risk forecast in many areas of B.C.”

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“Being caught in an avalanche is a life-threatening situation that has already claimed five lives in British Columbia this year,” said Bowinn Ma, Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

Ma says Avalanche Canada’s forecast has dangerous snowpack levels “and we’re urging everyone to exercise heightened levels of caution and vigilance in the backcountry this season. This year’s snowpack is being compared to 2003, which was one of the worst years for avalanche fatalities.”

According to Avalanche Canada, 29 people died during the winter of 2002-03.

Of the 29 fatalities, 25 occurred in B.C., including seven people on Jan. 20, who were backcountry skiing near Revelstoke. Another seven who were backcountry skiing died on Feb. 1 at Glacier National Park.

Click to play video: 'Avalanche risks ‘cause for concern’ across Western Canada'
Avalanche risks ‘cause for concern’ across Western Canada

A timeline of avalanche events this month:

  • Jan. 5: Avalanche Canada warns of a touchy snowpack, with various weak layers created by long periods of drought and cold weather. “Riders have triggered large, scary avalanches with high consequences,” the advisory says.
  • Jan. 9: Two off-duty police officers are caught up in an avalanche near Kaslo, B.C., while backcountry skiing. Nelson Police Service Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, dies and Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, sustains severe internal injuries.
  • Jan. 21: Nolet dies of his injuries in hospital.
  • Jan. 21: Two snowmobilers riding at the base of a slope near Valemount accidentally trigger an avalanche from above, sending a slab of snow onto one rider while the other escapes. The buried rider is found unresponsive and dies.
  • Jan. 23: Heli-skiers and their guide are caught in an avalanche near Revelstoke.  The two guests are dug out of the snow unresponsive and are both declared dead in hospital. The guide is taken to hospital in stable condition.
  • Jan. 23: A slide comes down on one person near Cherryville in the North Okanagan. Emergency health services say the person is taken to hospital with undetermined injuries.
Click to play video: 'Private funeral held for Nelson police officer who died in avalanche'
Private funeral held for Nelson police officer who died in avalanche

Avalanche Canada says it’s continuing to monitor a deep, persistent slab avalanche problem for many regions.

The agency says the slab is causing very dangerous and highly unpredictable avalanche conditions, and is encouraging people to stay away from steep slopes and terrain.

“This is a highly unusual and unpredictable snowpack. The complication with this snowpack setup is that the layers are deep enough that we are less likely to see clues of instability, like nearby avalanche activity, ‘whumpfing’ or cracking snow,” said Ryan Buhler, forecast supervisor with  Avalanche Canada.

“However, despite the lack of obvious clues, there is serious potential for large, human-triggered avalanches. We urge backcountry users to exercise caution and make conservative, low-consequence choices if they decide to travel in avalanche terrain.”

Avalanche Canada says backcountry users should always check its forecast, carry a transceiver, probe and shovel, and be trained to use them.

Avalanche Canada also said it expects these conditions to last the remainder of the winter in some areas.

Click to play video: 'Second Nelson police officer dies in hospital following avalanche'
Second Nelson police officer dies in hospital following avalanche

Backcountry tips from Avalanche Canada:

Avalanches can be remotely triggered and travel far in runout zones

  • Essential gear (transceiver, shovel and probe) should always be carried
  • Reduce the risk of being caught in an avalanche
  • Avoid steep, shallow and rocky terrain features
  • Avoid exposure to terrain traps, such as gullies, cliffs and trees
  • Adopt a cautious mindset when in avalanche terrain
  • Stick to slope angles of less than 30 degrees when in clearings
  • Open trees and alpine terrain can help minimize risk
  • Follow disciplined group decision-making
  • Minimize exposure to overhead hazards
  • Travel one at a time when exposed to avalanche terrain
  • Regroup in safe spots well away from overhead hazards.
  • Practise patience, avoid complacency and accept that you may need to manage this risk for weeks or months to come
Click to play video: 'Experts say ‘spooky’ B.C. snowpack creating dangerous avalanche conditions'
Experts say ‘spooky’ B.C. snowpack creating dangerous avalanche conditions

The province noted that, during the past 10 years, 73 per cent of all Canadian avalanche fatalities have occurred in British Columbia.

More avalanche safety guidance is also available from PreparedBC.

with files from the Canadian Press

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