Snowmobilers killed in B.C. avalanche identified
The B.C. Coroners Service has identified the five snowmobilers who were killed in an avalanche in northeastern British Columbia on Friday
In a statement, the provincial authority identified the victims as Vincent Loewen, 52, Tony Greenwood, 41, Ricky Robinson, 55, Todd Chisholm, 47, and John Garley, 49.
All of them hailed from Alberta.
The incident occurred on Friday near the town of McBride, which is located near the Alberta border, and about 210 kilometres southeast of Prince George.
At a news conference on Saturday afternoon, RCMP Const. John Grierson said 17 snowmobilers in four separate groups were riding on the trails of Mount Renshaw, about 20 kilometres east of McBride, at about 1:30 p.m. when the avalanche was triggered, sending a cascade of snow down the mountainside.
"All (snowmobilers) were either buried to some degree, or caught in the avalanche path," Grierson said, adding one other person received a non-life-threatening injury.
Grierson said that Rod Whelpton, a member of the Robson Valley Search and Rescue team, and another group of snowmobilers were in the area at the time, and came across the avalanche.
Grierson said that when Whelpton arrived, many of those caught in the avalanche had already "self-rescued," and four of the deceased had been removed from the snow.
A fifth person was then located and dug out as well.
At about the same time, authorities received beacon activations about an avalanche.
Grierson said that helicopters were "quick" to arrive on scene and flew out 11 people, including the deceased.
He added that authorities found that all of the snowmobilers were accounted for and no further search efforts were deemed necessary.
Those injured in the incident have been released from hospital.
Grierson said that he couldn't speak to the cause of the avalanche, but he described the snowmobilers involved as "very experienced and prepared."
The B.C. Coroners Service has arranged for an examination of the area.
Whelpton, who also spoke at the news conference on Saturday, said that he had never seen avalanche of "this magnitude," adding that it was about 700 metres wide.
He also echoed Grierson's statements saying the snowmobilers were "very prepared" and everyone was doing the "right thing" when he arrived on scene.
At the news conference, Grierson also offered his condolences to the families of those affected.
A statement released on behalf of victim Todd Chisholm's family said he was a married father and passionate outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing, hunting, and camping.
"He died too young doing what he enjoyed with his sledding buddies. Thanks to the four friends who were with Todd for their efforts," the statement said.
"Todd will be sadly missed by his wife of 18 years, children, mother and father, brothers and sister, extended family, friends and community."
Weak layer in snowpack was of concern
Earlier on Saturday, Karl Klassen, the head of Avalanche Canada, told The Canadian Press that human activity likely set off the avalanche, but he did not give further details.
Klassen later told CTV News Channel that Avalanche Canada hadn't issued any warnings for the area, but said in its weekly blog that there were concerns about the conditions.
"We felt there was a weak layer in the snowpack -- it was probably buried between 50 centimetres and 100 centimetres down -- the weak layer was of concern and could potentially produce avalanches," he said.
"It advised people to travel one at a time, and then make sure other parties weren't above them to reduce the chance of getting caught in an avalanche," he added.
However, Whelpton said that Friday was "very much a normal day.
"I went in myself believing it was a very safe area," he said.
On Saturday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Conservative Interim Leader Rona Ambrose both offered their condolences to the victims of the avalanche.
"My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the five who died yesterday in the Renshaw area," Ambrose said in a message on Twitter.
In his own message, Mulcair called the avalanche "heartbreaking."
"My thoughts are with those touched by this tragedy," he said.
Shirley Bond, the MLA for Prince George-Valemount and B.C. Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, also shared her sympathies and thanked the rescue crews for their work.
"This avalanche and the resulting loss of life is devastating news," she said in a statement. "It is a very sad day for all of us."
Avalanche safety improving over last decade
Despite the incident and increased use of the backcountry by outdoor enthusiasts, Klassen said that avalanche safety in Canada has been "improving" over the last the 10 years.
A big part of that, he said, is due to the high number of Canadians who take part in avalanche training courses. Klassen estimates that somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 people take part.
"Those are pretty amazing numbers for a small country like Canada," he said.
Klassen said this training is vital to coming up with the right plan to tackle difficult and changing conditions.
"Training courses are key: Both in terms of making your plan and carrying out safe travel procedures while you're in the backcountry," he said.
In particular, Klassen said those venturing out into the backcountry need to know how to undertake their own rescue missions, because they're often too far away for authorities to reach them in time.
"Generally speaking, by the time outside help arrives it is too late in Canada, it is just too far in these remote areas," he said.
Klassen advised people to bring probes, shovels and transceivers to help them in rescue operations.
Pascal Haegli, the research chair in avalanche risk management at Simon Fraser University, says that once avalanche victims are buried it is nearly impossible for them to dig out of the snow without the proper rescue equipment.
"Once the avalanche comes to a stop, it sets like concrete, very quickly," Haegli told The Canadian Press. "It's not the fluffy powder snow you have in mind."
Haegli said the snow can harden within ten minutes, leaving a very narrow window for rescuers to reach victims.
This was not the first deadly avalanche in the McBride area. In March, 2015, two Alberta men died while snowmobiling the Dore River Basin.
With files from The Canadian Press