Yukon avalanche forecasts: money running out

An avalanche safety service in the White Pass of the Coast Mountains shared by British Columbia and Yukon is trying to save lives, but funding is running out, and it’s not clear whether the project will last into next winter.

In the White Pass area of the Klondike Highway in northern British Columbia, Fraser Camp is a bit like a fire hall.

Three men with the Yukon Avalanche Association lace up their heavy boots, check their life-saving equipment and hit the road.

They’re off to do snow tests in the area to assess and report on the avalanche risk.

“Our main job is to go out and collect observations and share that with the public,” says Justin Abbiss, who’s with the team.

On the mountains, the men travel on skis, checking the density of the snow and cutting blocks for “impact tests,” where they’ll measure the snow’s density.

“I really love the fact that we get to come work out here in the mountains,” says Matthew Holmes, "and gather information on the snow pack, and go back to the office and relay information back to the public so that backcountry users can make informed decisions while travelling.”

On a recent day, tests of the snow pack revealed a high risk, and in the distance there was another warning sign — a crack in the snow.

That was news for a group of travellers, who happened to be snowshoeing in the area.

“Usually when there’s bad conditions on the road, we’ve already heard about it so we don’t really have the reflex to go on the website and check it out,” said Sarah Cloutier-Hebert. “You just assume that you will know that something is wrong.”

“We didn’t check it out,” her companion admits, “but we will next time.”

Now, however, it’s not clear whether that information will still be available. 

$200,000 a year

When it was formed in 2010, the Avalanche Association received three years of funding from the National Search and Rescue Secretariat. It was the first avalanche-forecasting project in the territory.

That grant — worth $200,000 a year — expires after this winter, and nothing has been announced to replace it.

Members of the avalanche association say they've been talking with government to find money to allow them to continue field work, but if that doesn't happen, their work could soon end.     

Before the Yukon Avalanche Association formed, “effectively we had nothing in place in terms of a public safety avalanche forecasting system,” says president Jim Bishop.

Joe Lammers is with the Canadian Avalanche Centre in British Columbia.

He’s visiting the area, and says this is a service Yukon needs.

These mountains are huge, and the avalanche danger here is very real.- Joe Lammers, Canadian Avalanche Centre

“I’m really blown away by how many backcountry users there are in the area. I’ve only been here for three days and I’ve seen snowmobilers, skiers and kiters, which is something new, and the reality is, most of these people are heading into avalanche terrain.”

To Lammers, it’s a question of life and death.

"Without those tools, a lot of these recreational users are coming into this area blind,” he says. “These mountains are huge, and the avalanche danger here is very real. I think they fulfill a very important public service.”

Across Canada, about 14 people a year die in avalanches.

The Yukon Avalanche Association says it hopes to reduce that number, partly through education, and partly by getting people check conditions before they head out.