Provincial spending cuts threaten to end advisory service, increase avalanche incidents
The Canadian Avalanche Association has not given up on the government, or the possibility that privately funded organizations will step forward and help to finance their twice weekly avalanche bulletins. Sooner would be better than later, however, as the groups resources are running out fast. They could be gone by early February.
"What we need for the survival of this service is to find the money to pay for two bulletins a week," says Evan Manners, the operations manager for the CAA. "We dont have that in place, so the immediate thinking is to find partners as soon as we can."
Manners believes that the service, which operates with a budget of $80,000 a year, should be funded by the government.
"If you look at other services around the world where there are public avalanche bulletins, in every case its always funded by government. Ours is unique, being a non-profit society. All were asking for is partial support, not complete support, and we feel its a reasonable request."
In previous years, the CAA has received support for the bulletin from the provincial government. The B.C. Provincial Emergency Program kicked in $20,000, the Ministry of Forests $5,000, the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection $10,000, and B.C. Assets and Lands $2,500.
"Of the $37,500 that we had been receiving in past years, we have received $2,500 now, so theres more than slight change from before," says Manners.
The government agencies make the decision to fund the bulletin on an annual basis, but could usually be counted on to kick in. The remainder, more than $40,000 comes from individuals and private sector businesses.
This year, with the government cutting spending drastically, the bulletin was one of many programs not to receive funding.
Rich Coleman, the Solicitor General of B.C. and Minister of Public Safety, could not be reached for comment by press time to comment on the cuts.
While Manners says the bulletin service may be able to limp through the season with a little help, in the long run the CAA will need a commitment.
"The principal problem were experiencing is that we have no financial stability for the program," he says. "We didnt do badly last year, and the bulletin was important because we had a winter full of high risk warnings, and yet we managed to avoid incidents to some degree. A lot of people said the bulletin was valuable, and we were thinking we might be able to grow it into a three day a week service. Then all of a sudden at the beginning of the year we see funding cuts. Not only cant we do it three days a week, were concerned if we can do it at all."
During the winter months, more than 1,000 people use the CAA Web site on any given day, and another 1,500 people have the information e-mailed to them. Another 60 get the bulletin by fax, and 1,800 more phone the Revelstoke-based centre every season to get an update.
On an annual basis, the avalanche warnings are used by more than 250,000 skiers, snowboarders, hikers, snowmobilers and search and rescue volunteers.
Another problem for the CAA is the difficulty it has in proving its effectiveness.
"How do you measure that youve prevented something from occurring when theres no incident?" asks Manners. "We havent spoken to anyone who feels that if the bulletin goes away, the number of incidents wont increase."
The CAA is putting together a questionnaire for users, and putting together anecdotal evidence where bulletins have helped backcountry visitors to make smart decisions. By researching past incidents the CAA discovered that the majority of people involved in avalanches didnt read the bulletin.
With four avalanche deaths in the province last week, and an average of 11 or 12 avalanche deaths per year in the province, Manners says it could cost the government more to get rid of the bulletin. Many incidents require the use of search and rescue teams, helicopters, and other forms of emergency support.
"If the number of avalanche incidents goes up, it could cost more in the long run than funding the bulletin," Manners says.