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Warming weather heightens avalanche concerns after 5 fatalities in B.C.

A big warming event is expected in B.C., one that will rapidly weaken the snowpack and cause widespread natural avalanches.

Five people have died from avalanches in B.C. this year, well below the yearly average but forecasters warn of a "very dramatic" warming event. 

Weather in March resulted in high-danger avalanche terrain and even prompted a special avalanche warning to stay out of areas. 

Tyson Rettie, an avalanche forecaster with Avalanche Canada, says the 10-year average for fatalities from avalanches is 11 people per year in British Columbia’s backcountry. 

“So we’re well below the average currently, so far this year,” says Rettie.

Many of the fatalities occurred in recent weeks. The forecaster noted there have been many near-misses with avalanches that could have resulted in dire consequences. 

“There's been... many close calls and many search and rescue callouts,” says Rettie. 

A woman was buried upside down for 20 minutes after being caught in an avalanche in Mount Seymour’s backcountry on Sunday. Rescuers say the Surrey woman in her 40s was very fortunate to have survived. 

Last year, 15 people died from avalanches in B.C.

Avalanche fatalities this season

  • Nov 11: Ice climber in Kananaskis Country, Alta.
  • Jan 27: Snowmobiler in Hasler region near Chetwynd, B.C.
  • Feb 24: Snowmobiler in Gardiner Creek, Castle Wilderness Area, Alta.
  • March 3: Snowmobiler on Sale Mountain, near Revelstoke, B.C.
  • March 10: Skier in Kananaskis Country, Alta.

Warning of what’s to come 

Mountainous regions in Western Canada have below-average snowpack, but dangerous avalanche conditions continue. 

Rettie tells Glacier Media a "very dramatic warming" event will start on the south coast as of Wednesday night and into Thursday. During this time, freezing levels will hit over 3,000 metres on Thursday.

“Then it'll sort of progressively ramp up in the Interior with the southern parts of the Interior getting to that 2,500 or perhaps even 3,000 metres tomorrow, as well,” he says. 

On Friday, the warming event will hit northwest B.C. and the Yukon. 

“That big warming event is likely going to rapidly weaken the snowpack. We're expecting to see widespread natural avalanche activity, especially because we already have such a weak snowpack,” he adds. 

Avalanche Canada has already seen lots of avalanches run to the valley bottom. 

“We're expecting to see a pattern of widespread large avalanche activity. The message going forward for at least the next few days, and certainly the weekend, is to avoid avalanche terrain,” he says, noting that includes valley bottoms.

Rettie does believe people are heeding the advice Avalanche Canada has put out.

“You need to be looking up knowing what's above you.”

This includes people who are snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. 

“[It] could put you at a real risk of being involved in avalanches if you're travelling underneath large slopes,” he says.