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A sign showing an avalanche hazard warning in 2016.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Avalanche Canada is warning of very dangerous and unpredictable conditions across a large swath of British Columbia, as warm temperatures exacerbate an unstable snowpack that has claimed five lives since Jan. 9.

On Wednesday, Avalanche Canada warned backcountry users to avoid avalanche terrain, especially in the North Rockies and northern Columbia Mountains. “Now is a time to stick to simple, low angle terrain as well as busy, tracked-out areas,” the agency says.

Avalanche Canada program director James Floyer noted that the snowpack is particularly tricky to read as weak layers are hidden, and highly variable. “We’re in, overall, quite a dangerous time right across Western Canada,” he said Wednesday.

The pandemic led to a significant increase in the number of people venturing into the backcountry, and the year 2020 stretched search and rescue operations as many new visitors were ill-prepared to explore. But the past two winters have also offered exceptionally good snow conditions.

This year is different.

The volatile conditions began with the same series of storms that dumped record-breaking rains over California, and could continue to the end of the winter season in some regions.

Mr. Floyer said this year’s snowpack compares to the winter of 2003, when 29 people died in avalanches in the Canadian backcountry, including seven Grade 10 students participating in a ski tour in Glacier National Park.

But the safety culture has since improved, he said. With the influx of new users, there has also been an increase in individual avalanche training, and forecasting systems are better. “We have made dramatic strides in backcountry safety,” he said, noting that all five victims this month were equipped with the recommended avalanche rescue equipment.

This season’s avalanche toll began in B.C. on Jan. 9, when two off-duty police officers were caught in an avalanche near Kaslo while backcountry skiing. Nelson Police Constable Wade Tittemore, 43, died at the scene, while Constable Mathieu Nolet, 28, later died of his injuries.

Two snowmobilers were riding south of Valemount last Saturday when an avalanche struck, killing one of the riders.

Then Monday, a group of heli-skiers led by a professional guide was caught in a slide at Mount McCrae, near Revelstoke. Two of the skiers – brothers Jonathan and Timothy Kingsley – died, while the guide remains in hospital.

Avalanche risk was labelled as considerable for the alpine terrain around Mount McCrae that day, where CMH Heli runs its exclusive Nomads mountain lodge.

Salina McNamara, a spokesperson for CMH Heli, said all members of the group were avalanche rescue-trained, and equipped with safety gear. The company has grounded its operations at Nomads, and says it does not know the cause of the avalanche. The RCMP and the coroners service are investigating.

The Canadian Avalanche Association provides training and standards for professional backcountry operators. Joe Obad, the association’s executive director, said members are responsible for assessing risk. “We are not day-to-day policemen telling operators to change their practices based on specific observations,” he said.

The association runs a data service where members share professional observations of snowpack, weather and avalanche occurrences. During the height of the season, the industry is providing more than 100 reports every day on current conditions. “They exchange information, and they make the best risk-assessment possible,” he said.

That information is shared with Avalanche Canada to help inform recreational users as well. “Our system is the envy of the world,” Mr. Obad said.

Dwight Yochim, senior manager for the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, said January has been a challenging month.

“When search and rescue gets a call for an avalanche, the results are usually not good. The individual buried in an avalanche has about 15 minutes of survival time. Unfortunately a lot of times when search and rescue is involved, it’s not a rescue, it’s a recovery.”

While the first year of the pandemic had a large increase in calls for search and rescue services, he said overall, people are investing in training and safety equipment along with their skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles.

“We were a little concerned that the trend was going very much the wrong way in 2020. That was our busiest year ever, with almost 2,100 incidents,” he said. Search and rescue operations have since returned to a more typical pace, which means about 1,700 callouts annually.

The crunch faced in 2020 did lead to some funding stability for avalanche forecast and rescue operations. In 2021, the B.C. government provided a $10-million grant to Avalanche Canada – money that is meant to be stretched over ten years – to ensure some operational stability. As well, B.C. search and rescue operations were provided operational funding through the provincial budget for the first time last year, instead of relying on one-off grants.