Kit Nilsson, scenario organizer, directing response members. Photo SPIN

On Jan. 26 a chilling call came over the radios of first responders in Sun Peaks.

“Code A. We have a report of a size two avalanche on Skunk. Nine people confirmed buried, unknown involvement of other subjects.”

Fortunately this time the code was part a mock scenario which offered a preview of what large-scale emergency response could look like if an avalanche were to occur inside Sun Peaks’ ski area boundary.

Involved in the training exercise were members from Sun Peaks ski patrol, Canadian Ski Patrol (CSP), Kamloops Search and Rescue (SAR), Shuswap SAR, Nicola Valley SAR, and Kamloops RCMP; a total of 55 responders.

A probe line is established to search for buried subjects. Photo SPIN

Kit Nilsson, avalanche forecaster for Sun Peaks Resort LLP, organised the event which was the first of its kind in the area. He said a multi-agency response is necessary for any significant avalanche activity that occurs in-bounds to ensure a safe and effective rescue operation.

According to Kamloops RCMP dog handler Rob “the way these events unfold, it’s never smooth, so having a run through and a practice on this is extremely beneficial.”

Nilsson referred to the recent avalanche at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which occurred in-bounds and resulted in two fatalities despite avalanche control work earlier that day.

“I want Sun Peaks and SAR to be ready for the worst case scenario,” he said.

Saturday’s simulation ran for three hours from the initial dispatch call, allowing response teams to run through multiple phases of a response operation.

A briefing took place, with command and staging areas established before teams were
mobilised to the avalanche site in the Gils. One team mitigated a hangfire hazard observed above the avalanche site by blasting it with explosives. Once the area was deemed safe other teams were deployed to find and rescue individuals caught in the initial slide.

Mannequins had been buried across the 7,500 square meter avalanche zone, and were located through use of an RCMP search dog, probe lines, transceiver and RECCO searches. Once dug out of the snow, human volunteers replaced the dummies as patients with mock injuries that required assessment and treatment.

Efforts were made to make the scene “as realistic as possible,” said Nilsson; from patients
sporting “trauma” makeup, to the use of real snowmobiles and explosives and working extrication and first aid equipment.

Responders tobogganing patients to the staging area. Photo SPIN

Allan Mole, manager for Kamloops SAR, was stationed in the scenario command centre at Top of the World.

“Today went really well,” he said. “We met the objectives of the training exercise, we got lots of learning that came out of the exercise.”

Fred Haight of CSP played a safety officer during the event.

“The main thing with exercises like this is just to test all the procedures you have in place,” Haight said. “It gives you the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Emergency preparedness… that’s what it’s all about.”

Despite intentions there is the challenge of coordinating truly holistic emergency response
training, given the nature of the players involved.

Both B.C. Ambulance and RCMP helicopters were engaged elsewhere during the exercise and thus unable to attend as planned. Meanwhile, as the scenario ended, Shuswap and Kamloops SAR were paged for a mission in the Shuswap.

“Real life takes priority,” recognised Nilsson.

Still, he hopes these players can return for a future multi-agency scenario, as he endeavours to make it an annual event.

“It’s not just preparing for an avalanche, but for responding to a big incident in general,” he said.