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Province to fund ‘extraordinary risk’ avalanche bulletins

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In the wake of two devastating avalanches in which a total of 14 people were killed, including seven private school children from Alberta, the B.C. government has announced plans to increase funding to the Canadian Avalanche Association’s avalanche bulletin program.

However, the funding was only committed as a contingency when high-risk situations are recognized. For example, if the CAA believes there is a high risk or that the risk has increased substantially on a day where no bulletin is planned, the government will fund special advisory bulletins to advise the public of the increased dangers.

Special conditions that might require advisory bulletins include temperature inversions, severe weather changes, or an increased risk of avalanche activity in any given area.

The decision whether to produce a bulletin will be made by the CAA in conjunction with the Provincial Emergency Program. It takes about four hours to produce a bulletin.

The cost of the emergency advisory bulletins, estimated at about $2,500, will be footed by the provincial government.

The production and distribution of the regular advisories, which are currently produced three times each week, will remain the responsibility of the CAA.

The new procedures, which were announced Feb. 7 by the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General, were to go into effect immediately.

According to Evan Manners, the operations manager for the CAA, the promised funding is welcome but falls short of what the CAA feels is needed.

"Naturally we’re very thankful for any help that’s offered, but we feel there are more pressing needs than a bulletin when the hazard is high or extreme. That’s useful, I don’t want to discount that," he said, "but the fact is that most accidents happen when the bulletin rates the hazard as more moderate or considerable."

The CAA met with Solicitor General Rich Coleman, who is also the Minister of Public Safety, on Feb. 13 to discuss the new funding. At that meeting, Manners said he would discuss the need for avalanche bulletins seven days a week covering a larger area.

"For example, if you’re touring or snowmobiling around Smithers in the Babine area, the bulletins are of no use to you," said Manners. "We still have lots of work to do on that."

In addition to increasing the number of bulletins and the area of coverage, Manners hopes to discuss a long term approach to solving avalanche problems in the province.

One suggestion is to increase the amount of research on avalanches in the province, something that the CAA feels is important for the recreation industry and B.C.’s reputation as a safe tourist destination.

"It’s one of those things that could have an effect on the Olympic bid," he said. "For the last (Winter) Olympics in the U.S., they worked over three years to put an avalanche safety network in place. It’s one of the areas that the bid committee needs to demonstrate our capability in.

"Everybody across B.C. could benefit from improved avalanche safety. It’s good for business basically."

Another suggestion is to improve education in risky areas. "Just in the Lower Mainland and Whistler areas, there is room for more research, improved communication channels in the recreation industry, and better public information systems," said Manners.

According to Manners, the new funding for advisory bulletins came as a surprise to the CAA – they did not find out about the program until two days after it was announced, and only received the press release when a reporter sent it to them.

"It’s a good thing, but we’d like to see the government go even further," Manners said.

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