Avalanche Canada keeps backcountry recreationalists safe in the snow
Amidst the Victorian architecture of downtown Revelstoke, at the foot of the Selkirk Mountains, sits an unassuming brown brick building. During the summer months its exterior crawls with ivy and things are relatively calm inside. In the winter, though, with ever-growing snowbanks overwhelming the streets of one of the snowiest communities in the country, it becomes a hive of activity. This is the headquarters of Avalanche Canada, our national public avalanche safety organization.
Originally called the Canadian Avalanche Centre, the organization formed in 2004 largely in response to the tragic winter season of 2002/03, in which 29 people lost their lives to avalanches in Canada. In the short time since, Avalanche Canada has become a homegrown world leader in forecasting, education and public safety, and has been instrumental in reducing the annual average number of avalanche deaths in Canada.
Today, the non-profit is the single most important source of information on snow safety for recreational backcountry users in Canada–for free–while also providing a host of excellent snow science and outreach programs.
Avalanche Canada exists to deliver an essential safety service, explains executive director Gilles Valade. The organization is funded through a variety of sources, including Columbia Basin Trust. Over the last two years, the Trust has worked closely with the organization, including granting $325,000 to help cover ongoing activities.
"Most of our funding is annual," says Valade, "and not guaranteed year-to-year. Columbia Basin Trust gave us a two-year agreement that enables us to have the infrastructure for our programs and the organization behind our services." This, in turn, directly powers the workforce that runs these important public programs–the most widely used of which is avalanche.ca, the main mode of delivery for the national daily avalanche bulletin.
Through Trust funding, in 2014 Avalanche Canada retooled its site to provide a simpler user experience, reduced the number of clicks required to access the most relevant information and hired a full-time IT staff person. For the 2014/15 winter season, 185,000 unique users made 518,000 visits to avalanche.ca, with about 35 per cent of those visits coming through Avalanche Canada’s mobile app.
"Sixty-five per cent of all avalanche fatalities in Canada have occurred in the Columbia Basin," says Valade. "This region is famous for its winter recreation and there is a tremendous amount of public use of avalanche terrain, which is why eight of our 12 forecast regions are here. Serving residents of and visitors to the Basin is critical."
Shauna Speers is a search and rescue manager in Golden. For the public, what has improved dramatically over the last few years, she says, is the interpretation and presentation of Avalanche Canada’s data. "Before it was super hard for backcountry users to understand; it was more for avalanche professionals than the target audience."
Thankfully for Speers, that’s no longer the case. If there’s an incident in her area, she’s often the first called. The more informed the public is, the less she needs to put herself at risk. Due in part to the proliferation of the bulletin, she’s not seeing an increase in callouts for avalanche involvements, even as the number of backcountry users increases. "People are starting to invest in education and equipment, and Avalanche Canada is a big part of that. Snowmobilers, especially, make up a really big group that’s getting more and more tuned in."
Indeed, as a region whose roots lie in the wild places that are the foundation of industry, recreation and community, Avalanche Canada remains an important service. Thanks to the funding from those who recognize its key role in leading fuller, healthier lives, everyone in the Basin has the opportunity to play a little harder and feel a little safer.