Disaster funding evolves to preventative funding for Avalanche Canada

.Ski Touring in Glacier National Park at Rogers Pass. Photo provided by Parks Canada.

Canada’s non-for-profit national public avalanche safety organization, Avalanche Canada, has long been advocating for more consistent funding from the government. 

Historically, government dollars have been intermittently granted after winter seasons with elevated numbers of avalanche fatalities, making it difficult for the organization to plan in the medium and long-term.

On May 17, the province’s minister of public safety and solicitor general Mike Farnworth announced a $10 million grant would be administered to Canada’s national public avalanche safety, providing the organization with $1 million annually for the next ten years. 

“Avalanche Canada has been advocating for funding certainty for a number of years, and this grant responds to that need,” said Farnworth, in a statement at the time. 

“The work they do is vital to our public safety, particularly as interest in winter recreation grows and as the frequency of extreme weather increases due to climate change, and I’m pleased we are able to work with this organization to support their important work.”

Gilles Valade, executive director of Avalanche Canada, said while the long-term funding is a welcome development, it will only make about a quarter of the organization’s yearly budget going forward. He will still need to cobble together other funding to allow the organization to continue to provide its essential functions.

“In one year, a million dollars is only a quarter of our budget, give or take a few,” explained Valade. 

Tragic beginnings and a busy future 

In the past much of Avalanche Canada’s funding, and the organization itself, was sparked by tragic backcountry accidents.

The world-leading avalanche forecasting organization was created after a winter season took the lives of a total 29 backcountry skiers, including seven school aged children during a backcountry skiing field trip to Rogers Pass in 2003.

The combined tragedies prompted a public outcry that led to the incorporation of Avalanche Canada (originally named the Canadian Avalanche Center) the following year.

Valade explained that since 2004, government funding has been static and uncertain even with inflation, multiple seasons with elevated numbers of backcountry tragedies and increased demand for their avalanche forecasts and safety courses fueling additional need for the organization.

Another particular season of note was the 2008-09 winter when 24 avalanche deaths occurred, 19 of whom were snowmobilers. 

A report by the B.C. Coroners Service gave several recommendations includingPartnering with the Canadian Avalanche Center to develop and deliver avalanche awareness programming for snowmobilers, similar to the Snowmobile Outreach Program funded by the Government of Alberta.”

Solicitor General at the time, Mike Heed, responded with support for the recommendation and committed to government action.  

Another recommendation, made to the Canadian Avalanche Roundtable (CAR), who were a committee of avalanche industry stakeholders and professionals, outlined the need to implement more detailed avalanche forecasts in smaller regional zones and increase frequency of forecasts.

CAR responded in a letter stating they supported the recommendation but funding remained a key determinant in how quickly it could take place.

“The CAR and its member organizations agree to work collaboratively in the spirit of cooperation towards an enhanced public avalanche forecast system that incorporates smaller bulletin regions and more frequent forecasts, however additional incremental funding and a staged approach will be required to meet this recommendation in its entirety.” 

Other recommendations were made to provincial ministries outlining the need for better public education of the dangers of avalanche terrain, signage, as well as the development of the avalanche terrain exposure scale known as ATES.

Today, Avalanche Canada is still trying to implement more of the recommendations made in 2009 but has been held back due to financial uncertainty. 

“Funding hasn’t really increased since [2004], it was annual funding so every year I would have to ask for money, apply for grants; it was always uncertain and the timing was unpredictable,” Valade explained.

He said the funding was like disaster funding, and compared it to buying an alarm system after a house gets vandalized.

“Sadly, it was easier for me to get funding after a really bad year. More fatalities, for me, made funding easier. It’s tragic and it’s backwards but that’s the reality.”

Money would also come from various sources such as grants, private sponsors, provincial and federal governments.

In 2017 the federal government provided Avalanche Canada with a $1.2 million dollar endowment which was put towards funding new software to produce timely public avalanche information to help users make more informed decisions about managing avalanche risk.

“Sometimes we got a bit of a grant to add more money but it was only for a year or two and then [funding] would go back down. Two years ago we finished a grant that we had gotten so this [past] year I got like $250,000 less than I did [the year before],” Valade said. 

“In the early days we used to get a higher percentage of our revenue from sponsorships, but over the years that’s declined. I think they were happy to give us a boost, but everybody [mistakes] us as a public service. Why would the private industry fund a public service?”

An inherent reliance 

Last season was a record setting year in avalanche skills training (AST) participation with more than 15,000 students taking part in courses during one of the busiest suspected seasons in B.C. ‘s backcountry, according to Valade.

Not only are the number of backcountry recreationalists who rely on Avalanche Canada’s services increasing, but industry professionals, public and private entities also regularly use the service for their own operations.

The Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) is responsible for training avalanche professionals within the industry. These professionals include Avalanche Canada and ski resort forecasters, the ministry of transportation and infrastructures avalanche control professionals, as well as ski guides.

The CAA also runs an information exchange (named the InfoEx) which is a source of avalanche forecasts and observations, snowpack analysis and weather from organizations all across Western Canada. Avalanche Canada forecasters commonly contribute to the system and use it to release more accurate avalanche forecasts. 

The value of the InfoEx is commonly agreed by industry to be a multi-million dollar contribution to the safety of the public and ski industry as it plays a primary role in Canada’s public avalanche safety, according to a letter written to Farnworth in February 2021 by Joe Obad, the executive director of the CAA, which called for the need of long-term provincial government funding for reasons surrounding tourism and worker safety.

“Destination BC, the province’s marketing agency, makes it clear on its website that the government supports responsible outdoor activity in avalanche terrain, with several prominent references to Avalanche Canada,” he wrote. 

“Following this lead, countless regional tourism agencies, municipalities, and local businesses direct visitors to Avalanche Canada’s resources. A casual observer would quickly recognize that winter tourism in B.C. holds use of Avalanche Canada’s product as a pillar of its tourism strategy.” 

Obad included that not only does the tourism industry, and the fabric of B.C.’s mountain tourism economy rely on Avalanche Canada’s services, but so does the government itself citing WorkSafeBC regulations that require employers who work in avalanche terrain to write, develop and implement an avalanche safety plan for their worksite.

In this, Avalanche Canada plays a key role by providing cost effective, time sensitive forecasting support over broad regions for workers and employers. 

Not only does the private sector benefit from the public avalanche bulletins, but so does the provincial government ministry of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, ministry of environment, emergency management BC, BC Hydro, ministry of transportation and infrastructure, and the BC public service natural resource agency. 

In fact, the provincial government’s most highly trained avalanche experts work in the ministry of transportation and infrastructure avalanche and weather programs, who draw on the InfoEx, and Avalanche Canada’s free avalanche bulletins to keep roadways open for British Columbians.

A photo of a slide on Raft Mountain. Photo by Brandi Schier.

Planning ahead

Now, the recent $10 million announcement will allow Valade to continue his quest to meet more of the recommendations made in the 2009 Coroner’s report with two new forecasting teams, including one on Vancouver Island and another in the northern community of Smithers. 

Last season also saw a continuing trend of reduced avalanche fatalities.

“We’re seeing the number of fatalities pretty well stable and going down, meaning that even though we’re seeing all these increases, the fatality numbers have decreased which means something’s working,” said Valade. “It’s not entirely because of Avalanche Canada, but because everybody in the backcountry is doing their part and we have a system and a culture now that we’ve developed together.”

Down the road, Valade said Avalanche Canada will continue to improve its website, mobile app, and the user-generated Mountain Information Network (where recreationalists share their avalanche related field observations).

Eventually, Valade and his team would like to see annual $20 donations from those who use their services to help make up the 75 per cent of their annual budget, which is not covered by the B.C. government.

“It’s the one we dream about. We don’t want, or need, a ton of money from our users, but we have a couple 100,000 users, $20 each. You do the math.”

The necessity of Avalanche Canada’s services will only continue to grow as outdoor recreation becomes more popular and next season is expected to be even busier than the last.

“I think we’re looking at a super busy year again this year. COVID added another layer of busyness to the backcountry,” added Valade.

Valade’s aim is to incorporate the ATES scale to the trip planner with computer software that will scan terrain using Google Earth to quickly inform users how dangerous the terrain is they plan to travel through.

“It’s very time consuming and costly, but we’re working on a project with a few other countries to make that automated with a supercomputer to rate [avalanche terrain] across the whole province,” Valade explained.

Eventually, more complicated computer software could become available for the public which will take data from thousands of weather points to make a profile of what the snowpack should look like.

“It’s quite a jump from having somebody dig a pit with a shovel,” Valade said. “It’s complicated analysis but we started using it last year and tried to validate it [with field observations] to see if it has potential.”

To find out more, or to donate to the Avalanche Canada foundation, visit www.avalanche.ca.

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