New avalanche warning system unveiled

The federal government has launched a new avalanche warning system, four days after two snowmobilers died in a B.C. slide.
Jim Prentice, minister of the environment and responsible for Parks Canada, looks at the new North American avalanche danger scale in Calgary on Wednesday. ((Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press))

The federal government has launched a new avalanche warning system, four days after two snowmobilers died in a B.C. slide.

The new system features a simple, five-level danger scale scheduled to be implemented across North America next winter.

"The avalanche danger scale … communicates the likelihood of avalanches being triggered, their expected size, how widespread the situation may become and the recommended action for backcountry travel," federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice said on Wednesday.

He called it "the most comprehensive and complete avalanche warning system designed to date" in an announcement in Calgary.

The new system was developed by Parks Canada after years of consultation with the Canadian Avalanche Centre, the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Avalanche Information Centre.

The danger scales of low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme are designed to make clear what the avalanche danger is in a particular area.

The scale is similar to the previous system, but includes danger icons borrowed from the European system and clarifies the language of the warnings. Level four, or high, for example, indicates that travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.

The last major change to public avalanche warnings in Canada was made in 1993.

"I can say with confidence this new avalanche danger scale will make a difference to the many thousands of people who do read our bulletins, who do heed our messages and who enjoy the backcountry with respect and awareness," said Ian Tomm, executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Centre.

B.C. avalanche killed 2, injured 30

Two Alberta men were killed and more than 30 people were injured in an avalanche on Saturday.

About 200 snowmobile enthusiasts had gathered in the backcountry near Revelstoke, B.C. for an annual snowmobile event despite weeks of high avalanche risk warnings.

Alberta Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who grew up in a family of snowmobilers, said experienced riders know when to have fun and when to sit the ride out.  

"Really, this is about common sense and it's about people involved in a sport trying to keep the bad eggs from ruining it for everybody because it can be a wonderful activity, but you gotta be safe and you gotta be smart," she said.

Policing outdoors too complicated

Since the Revelstoke avalanche, many people have raised the idea of regulating access to the backcountry when the risk is too high.

But a 2003 Parks Canada report on avalanche risk concluded it would be too complicated and difficult to police Canada's great outdoors.

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, whose brother was killed in a B.C. avalanche in 1998, said he welcomes the rules with some caution. Trudeau said it should be up to an individual to venture into a backcountry area.

"People are talking, as they do after every accident or incident like this, about limiting access to the backcountry, about government saying when we should be allowed to go play outdoors or not," Trudeau told CBC News.

"And I don't like that. I don't like the idea that bureaucrats or government officials are going to determine my ability to go and enjoy this extraordinary Canadian wilderness we have."

With files from Alison Myers and Brooks Decillia