Avalanche Canada is a non-government, not-for-profit organization that delivers avalanche forecasts in aims to increase avalanche safety. The Elk Valley is home to one of only two field teams in Canada. The South Rockies Field Team covers almost 12,000 square kilometres and is the larger of the two team’s areas. The South Rockies three-person team consists of Jennifer Coulter, Martina Halik and Stephanie Lemieux.
“The Flathead/Lizard Range and South Rockies bulletin areas cover about 11,525 square km. The Yukon Bulletin region is currently the only other area with a field program. The size of that region is quite a bit smaller,” said Halik. “Two of us are on at any one shift so we do not work alone in the backcountry for safety reasons.”
There are three skiing operations that cover Fernie, including Fernie Alpine Resort, Island Lake Lodge and Fernie Wilderness Adventures. Due to this, Avalanche Canada is able to focus their data collection in the data sparse areas throughout the South Rockies, such as Sparwood and Elkford.
“We concentrate on collecting data and meeting people outside of Fernie such as the Flathead, Crowsnest, Corbin, Elkford and Sparwood, Fort Steele,” said Halik. “The majority of the people we see in the backcountry are sledders, with a few skiers and snowboarders doing some sled accessed riding.”
While the field team starts and ends in an office they spend the majority of their shift collecting data in the field. The team uses many resources before leaving the office. Tools like weather forecasts and highway cams can be useful in giving the team an idea of what they are heading into, but the most detailed tool is the Industry Information Exchange (Infoex) where subscribers can exchange technical snow, weather, avalanche and terrain information between its users.
“A typical day starts with us in our office. We check the Infoex, current and forecast weather data, as well as a few other pieces of information to piece together a hazard forecast and put together a plan for the day,” said Halik. “We usually spend about five to six hours a day in the field. We look for signs of recent avalanches, check snowpack layers, weather, gather photos and videos to try to pass on the information we find in a more meaningful and effective way – such as through blogs, Instagram, or Facebook.”
The team also factors in area use. Zones that receive more traffic are the ones that the team tries to forecast more.
“Locally, we try to visit areas that get the most amount of recreational use – we only work four days a week so we really need to prioritize where our info will have the best impact for users. Ideally, we could work seven days a week with more field members and not have any gaps in our field days at all, giving us more consistent and accurate information for the bulletin and our social media channels,” Halik said. “We are the only area in B.C. and Alberta, outside of Parks Canada, with a field team due to funding. We are extremely lucky to have found a generous sponsor with Teck who has made our team possible. In an ideal world all our ‘data sparse’ bulletin areas would have field teams.”
The team does not take a position of enforcement when interacting with the public, often receiving useful information from other trail users.
“We are not really interested in increasing our presence, as we are not there to be the ‘avalanche police’. Instead we are interested in gathering relevant snowpack, weather, and avalanche information from the data sparse areas where people like to ride,” said Halik. “We are interested in what other local riders have been seeing in the backcountry too, because we can only go so many places in a shift, so their information is also a great help to us. Often we answer avalanche related questions and try to impart some type of current travel advice or other tips to interested riders we meet in the field.””
Halik wants backcountry users to get involved, posting relevant photos to specific websites allows the field team to use them as information aids.
“We encourage riders we meet to help us by submitting their observations to the Mountain Information Network on the Avalanche Canada website,” she said. “The information the field team gathers helps to make the local avalanche bulletins, but we also submit information and photos to the Mountain Information Network which is available for anyone.”