A member of the Canadian Avalanche Centre works with some snowmobilers during the first Avalanche Awareness Day in January 2005.

Out of the snow: The development of the Canadian Avalanche Centre

The 2003 avalanches that killed 14 people, including 7 school children, sparked the founding of the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre in downtown Revelstoke is a hive of activity these days, with 11 forecasters producing daily bulletins, software developers, a communications team, and staff co-ordinating youth outreach and snowmobiler outreach programs – all with a budget of about $1.3 million.

It’s a far cry from a decade ago, when the centre didn’t exist, and public avalanche safety was run by the Canadian Avalanche Association – an organization of avalanche professionals that spent a small amount of money on public safety initiatives off the sides of their desks.

The public avalanche bulletin put out by the CAA stemmed from the InfoEX, a service used by commercial backcountry skiing operators to share information about avalanche conditions. It was started in 1991 as a response to an avalanche that killed nine guests skiing with CMH in the Bugaboos.

As word spread about the InfoEX, backcountry skiers started to call the Canadian Avalanche Association office in Revelstoke for information about conditions.

“The demand grew up by word of mouth so the CAA, as an altruistic organization, said we’d do what we could,” said Clair Israelson.

As a result, the CAA started producing public avalanche bulletins, but in a very haphazard manner, said Israelson.

“We were trying,” he said. “It was perhaps once a week, but we tried to do it more often whenever we could, but it was pretty haphazard.”

They eventually started producing them more often. By the winter of 2002–03 they were producing three bulletins per week for five different regions of British Columbia. On top of that, Parks Canada had long been producing avalanche bulletins for the national parks.

In 2002–03 the CAA spent $255,000 on public avalanche safety programs. The organization received $30,000 from the B.C. government, $75,000 from fundraising through the Canadian Avalanche Foundation, and the rest came out of CAA revenues.

When the La Traviata and Connaught Creek avalanches struck that winter, killing seven people each, there was a media outcry for more support of public avalanche safety programs. “It was something no provincial government could ignore,” said Israelson, who credited Mohini Singh, a reporter with the CBC in Kelowna, of leading the charge even before the two tragedies.

In response, the B.C. government commissioned a review of public avalanche safety programs. The report, prepared by Bhudak Consultants, was published in June 2003 and recommended the establishment of a national avalanche centre that would operate as a not-for-profit, with funding from provincial and federal governments.

“A National Avalanche Centre should build on the knowledge, expertise, and contacts of avalanche professionals employed by industry, not-for-profit organizations, and government operations to deliver credible, effective, and technically competent public avalanche safety programming,” the report stated.

That fall, Rich Coleman, then the B.C. Solicitor General, announced $375,000 in funding over three years for the centre. A few months later, the Federal government announced $525,000 in funding over three years. In the fall of 2004, the Canadian Avalanche Centre was formally launched in Revelstoke. It was set up as a public-private not-for-profit, with government funding and corporate support. The Alberta government provided $100,000 in funding starting in the spring of 2005.

It’s initial budget was a tad more than $500,000 – at the lower end of what was recommended by the report, but an amount that forced the CAC to budget prudently.

“There was a really long list of things that we wanted to do and then there was a much smaller list of things we could afford to do,” said Israelson. “If we’d be given a whole bunch of cash right from the get go we might have been a little less frugal and prudent.”

That winter, the CAC produced three bulletins a week for six different regions – the South Coast, Northwest, North Columbia, South Columbia, Kootenay-Boundary, and South Rockies – and a weekly bulletin for the North Rockies. Now, it produces daily bulletins for 12 regions and less frequent bulletins for other areas of the province.

“I don’t think there was a lot of expectations,” said Karl Klassen, who joined the CAC as a forecaster in 2004 and is now the acting Executive Director. “For the first few years the centre was operating everyone was just trying to figure out what needed to be done and how best to do it.”

***

Figuring out what to do was first on the list. For that, Israelson said they went to every other national avalanche centre around the world to see what the best practices were, and then “we stole shamelessly the best from everybody.”

“Really, the biggest challenges were establishing the priorities of the things that would be most effective and developing those programs,” he said.

The bulletins were one of the first focuses, and a team of dedicated forecasters was put in place to do the work. According to the CAC’s 2004–05 annual report, the first winter they issued 620 avalanche advisories, 430 forecasts, 21 information reports and three special warnings.

They also held backcountry avalanche workshops in Calgary and Vancouver that attracted more than 300 people each, and launched Avalanche Awareness Days, a series of educational events in mountain communities across Canada, with a signature event in Lake Louise.

“With 11 fatalities during the 2003–2004 winter and only six this past season, the 10-year trend in avalanche fatalities in Canada decreased this year for the first time since 1993,” they wrote in the report. “Although it’s too early to determine if this is a long-term trend in accident reduction, the work of the CAC has certainly helped to increase public avalanche awareness and may have helped reduce accidents.”

***

Over the years, the CAC has expanded its bulletins, producing them more frequently and for more regions. They also launched ADFAR – Avalanche Decision Framework for Amateur Recreationalists. That project resulted in the introduction in 2006 of the Avaluator, a tool designed to help decision making by linking the avalanche danger rating to terrain. The tool was further developed and in November 2010, the CAC launched the Avaluator 2.0, which further refined the tool by creating a scoring system for people to use to calculate the avalanche conditions and terrain characteristics. “All of that stuff is to me a very significant shift to how we give the public recreationalist the skills and the knowledge they need to make informed decision,” said Klassen.

The ADFAR project also resulted in changes to Avalanche Skills Training (AST) courses; more emphasis was put on terrain than making snow profiles. The Avaluator provided a better way for for backcountry users to match avalanche conditions to the terrain, and how to make those choices became a bigger part of the AST courses.

“Those are concrete tools that people can use at levels of ability to help them plan their trips and make decisions in the backcountry that are informed and help them manage their risks,” said Klassen.

Over the years, backcountry use has exploded. Here are some statistics from the CAC’s annual report for 2011-12:

According to Parks Canada, the number of skiers in Rogers Pass more than doubled from 2009 to 2012.

More than 1.4 million avalanche bulletins were read – a 20 per cent increase from the year before.

The number of snowmobilers buying passes from clubs in Revelstoke, Sicamous, Squamish and Valemount went up by 14 per cent.

Almost 7,000 people took AST courses last winter.

All those numbers point to ever-increasing use of the backcountry, but one problem that CAC faces is just getting a grasp on how many people are out there. The numbers above don’t encapsulate the vast number of people heading into the mountains from areas where there is no easily-monitored access.

Still, avalanche professionals take pride in the fact that despite the increased use, the number of fatalities has declined the past three years. So far this winter only one person has died in an avalanche in Canada – a surveyor who was killed in October while working in near Stewart, B.C.

“We should be pretty proud of the fact the education and outreach programs and forecasting are playing some role simply by raising people’s awareness and giving them better tools to make decision,” said Klassen. “I think the centre has been unqualified success based on that alone, significantly more people in the backcountry and fatalities going down, as a percentage.”

***

Grant Statham, who was hired by Parks Canada in 2003 to improve their public avalanche safety programs, said one of the goals when he started was to increase the “cultural awareness” of avalanches. Events like the backcountry workshops, Avalanche Awareness Days and youth outreach programs go a long way towards doing that. They actively work with the media to relay the avalanche danger and put out special warnings.

“My sense is that in British Columbia and in parts of Alberta, most people have heard the word avalanche,” said Statham. “They hear it on the news all the time or they see it in the newspaper. They might not know where the weak layer is but they know there’s avalanche danger in B.C. and that they should be paying attention. that was really our goal, to make broad awareness.”

Israelson called the public awareness the CAC has created “a huge step forward.” He said he remembered someone on the CAC Board of Directors once saying that when he heard an avalanche forecast on the radio, he would consider the CAC a success.

“When I was a kid growing up in B.C., you never heard about avalanches. It just was simply not on our radar,” he said. “This public awareness, that it’s something that’s part of our B.C. winter, I think is a huge step forward. It’s a little thing, but I think it’s a pretty big thing.”

***

Going forward, most people I spoke to talked about the importance of terrain management as where the focus needs to be. Statham said the CAC has taken the terrain rating system developed by Parks to a “new level.” Now, he said there’s lots of room to improve the way people manage terrain.

Klassen said coming up with more tools to help people pick the right terrain on the right day is the future of avalanche education. The CAC has developed an online trip planner designed to help people make decisions when they go to places. They have mapped out and applied ATES ratings to many popular backcountry areas. Now, he said, they need to create tools so that even if there’s no ATES rating and no bulletin for an area, people will have the tools to make smart choices.

“When you look at the number of mountainous areas in British Columbia, the diversity of the users and the diversity of the use patterns and then the amount of money that’s it takes to produce the data stream that’s required to produce an accurate avalanche forecast at any given time, I don’t think we’re ever going to see all the mountainous areas have an avalanche forecast,” said Klassen. “We need to give people tools that help them in places that have no avalanche forecast or for that matter where there is no terrain ratings.”

 

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