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B.C. police officer killed in avalanche, first fatality of season

Another officer has been critically injured.

A Nelson police officer has been killed and another officer is in critical condition after an avalanche near Kaslo.

Two off-duty police officers were struck by the avalanche while they were backcountry skiing on Jan. 9.

Kaslo Search and Rescue was called out by RCMP to the incident near Empire Cabin, west of Buchanan Mountain.

“Initial evaluations led us to believe that we had access issues in high-risk avalanche terrain,” says a spokesperson. “Our team immediately mobilized our winter response specialists and avalanche technicians who completed a risk assessment of the terrain by helicopter before determining it was safe to land on scene.”

A second helicopter was also deployed with the Regional Long Line Team; a trauma physician, a member of Nelson Search and Rescue, also attended.

A bystander had cellphone service on the mountain and aided the response of SAR during the rapidly evolving situation.

“The level of seriousness was increasing throughout the operation as we continued to receive updates. Complicating the operation was the restriction of helicopters being unable to fly past daylight hours,” says a spokesperson.

A ground SAR team also evacuated all members from the mountain.

RCMP Sgt. Kris Clark says the two individuals entered the area by snowmobile and hiked to a ski bowl in the alpine.

Clark says one of the officers was rescued and given first aid while they searched for the second officer.

“The second individual was later located; unfortunately, efforts to save their life were unsuccessful,” says Clark. “The injured skier was evacuated by helicopter to a local area hospital in critical condition.”

Condolences are pouring in online for the two officers. Neither of the officers have been identified publicly.

“The Nelson Police Board, the City of Nelson, and the Nelson Police Department offer their condolences and support to the families at this time,” states a spokesperson.

B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth also gave his condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the officers.

“On behalf of all British Columbians, we send our deepest condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy. Our thoughts are also with the officer who was critically injured, and we wish them well as they begin to recover,” said Farnworth.

He also thanked the first responders and all those who responded to the rescue operation.

“This is a tremendous loss for Nelson and for policing in British Columbia, and we are here to support the Nelson Police Department and the City of Nelson in this difficult time,” the minister said.

The Avalanche Canada website said a size 2.5 avalanche had been triggered by humans on a slope near Kaslo on Monday.

Warnings from avalanche experts

Simon Horton, a senior forecaster with Avalanche Canada, tells Glacier Media there is concern about the current snowpack being 'tricky' in a lot of areas in B.C.

"It has to do with the prolonged periods of cold weather we had at the start of the winter, then followed by a bunch of storms over the holiday period. We’re worried about people triggering large avalanches,” he says.

Forecasters believe current conditions make it difficult to anticipate where avalanches may be triggered from.

"The complication with this snowpack setup is that the layers are deep enough that we are a lot less likely to see clues, like nearby avalanche activity, whumpfing, or cracking snow,” says Mike Conlan, a forecaster with Avalanche Canada. "If you do experience any of these, then of course, it is a strong sign to keep things tame. But right now, we must remember that the first sign of trouble could be triggering a high-consequence avalanche."

B.C. avalanches: What areas are of concern?

According to Avalanche Canada, there are three main areas of concern. 

That includes the Columbia Mountains, many parts of the Interior mountain ranges and the Rocky Mountains. Horton believes these conditions could catch some people by surprise. 

"Through most of the Interior ranges, we're seeing a very weak snowpack structure, and people are triggering large avalanches on them. And we're concerned that this is a kind of avalanche problem that doesn't have obvious clues when you're heading out,” he says.

The south coast of the province is also experiencing its own "interesting" conditions. 

"It started off quite cold and below average in terms of snowpack,” says Horton. "So it created a weak structure similar to the Interior, but now as we've had warmer, more typical coastal storms, we're seeing a lot of the coastal regions returned to a more typical coastal snowpack. That being said, there are some areas of concern on the coast... Pemberton, the Duffy (Lake area), and more northern inland parts of the region.”

Over on Vancouver Island, there is a thinner-than-normal snowpack. 

“We're right in the period of really active wet coastal storms, so it's going through a pretty difficult period of heightened avalanche conditions during the storms, followed by lulls in between the storms,” he says. 

What to do if you're going into the backcountry

Avalanche conditions can change by the day or even by the hour, and so Horton says anyone going out has to have the training and equipment so that they can manage their own avalanche safety.

“We can see things go a couple of different ways this season,” he says. "This problem could last for weeks or months in many parts of the province and others might go away quite quickly, depending on how the weather plays out.”

If you or someone you know is planning to head out, there are some things to consider. Horton says it's important to be careful when it comes to terrain choices, "more conservative choices like lower slope angles, being in mature timber and staying away from large slopes overhead."

Risk can be also managed by:

  • adopting a conservative mindset when in avalanche terrain;
  • being diligent about terrain choices, sticking to slope angles less than 30 degrees when in clearings, open trees, and alpine terrain;
  • following disciplined group decision-making, ensuring that each group member is engaged in terrain selection;
  • minimizing exposure to overhead hazard, given that these avalanches can be remotely triggered and travel far in runout zones;
  • travelling one at a time when exposed to avalanche terrain and regrouping in safe spots well away from overhead hazard;
  • avoiding exposure to terrain traps, such as gullies, cliffs, and trees to reduce the consequence of being caught in an avalanche; and
  • practicing patience, avoiding complacency, and accepting that you may need to manage this risk for weeks or months to come.

For more information, visit Avalanche Canada's website