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Expert urges people to check avalanche warnings

Expert urges people to check avalanche warningsA search and rescue helicopter flies over the Rokies in 2010 near Revelstoke, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

REVELSTOKE, B.C. - An avalanche expert says the deaths of eight people this month in the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta is especially heartbreaking because there is so much information available warning of the danger.

The people who have died since March 8 range from snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, hikers and snowshoers to a father and son who were buried while tobogganing within sight of the Chateau Lake Louise luxury hotel.

"It is frustrating when a significant number of people die in avalanches," Ilya Storm, a spokesman for the Canadian Avalanche Centre, said Monday.

"In at least two of these accidents the people probably were not aware of avalanches at all — and that is a huge challenge for us. We are looking for ways to be able to extend the reach of our public safety initiatives."

The centre in Revelstoke, B.C., posts detailed daily avalanche forecasts during the winter on the Internet (www.avalanche.ca/cac) and offers information about training courses and safety equipment.

But much of the information is aimed at people with some knowledge of backcountry perils.

Two people who died snowshoeing March 8 were tourists from Spain visiting Banff National Park. The two tobogganers who were last seen alive March 9 were visiting from Montreal.

Storm said the non-profit centre faces the challenge of putting information out to two very different groups.

Along with forecasts, the centre offers avalanche awareness programs for people who live in or frequent the mountains, including safety courses aimed at backcountry enthusiasts and young people in schools.

It's a different story for tourists or people with less experience in the mountains.

There are avalanche warning signs and information kiosks in some areas. There is an avalanche app available for smartphones. Some hotels carry avalanche forecast information and broadcast it into guest rooms on internal TV channels.

But there's no guarantee that people will read the information or heed the warnings.

"There is still a lot of work to do to get some people to do the equivalent of hopping in the car and putting on a seatbelt," Storm said.

So far this winter, 13 people have died in avalanches in B.C. and Alberta. That's up from six deaths last year. The 10-year average is 12 fatalities.

About 90 per cent of avalanches are triggered by people.

Storm said conditions in the mountain snowpack this season have been troublesome, with deep snow making it difficult to locate weak layers associated with snowslides.

The threat has moderated a bit from earlier this month, but conditions can change daily. And despite the calendar, there is still plenty of winter ahead in the mountains.

"This year and especially this last week, conditions have been extraordinarily challenging and dynamic with a high degree of uncertainty," Storm said.

"We have a good month to six weeks of avalanche season in front of us."

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

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