Avalanches, floods and Grizzly bears: West Kootenays face hazards of late spring

Between a later, bigger snow pack and the reawakening of area Grizzly bears, Arrow Lakes residents need to watch out in the spring warmth as Mother Nature comes roaring to life.
A deep, late snowpack and cloudy skies had Terry Warren flooded with calls Friday.

  • May. 19, 2011 10:00 a.m.

Between a later, bigger snow pack and the reawakening of area Grizzly bears, Arrow Lakes residents need to watch out in the spring warmth as Mother Nature comes roaring to life.

A deep, late snowpack and cloudy skies had Terry Warren flooded with calls Friday.

Warren is the regional emergency coordinator for the Regional District of the Central Kootenay.

Warnings of potential high runoffs because unseasonally late and deep snowpacks had him working the phones as he kept an eye on the weather band.

“The snowpack is 142 percent of average,” Warren said between calls. “We’re right up against it now – I’ve got calls coming in here right now – people are worrying … Not for this local (Nakusp) area, we’re pretty safe where we are.

“It’s the whole southeastern part of the province. Nakusp is okay at this point, but it all depends on the weather – we do have rain moving through on Sunday, which could cause some problems. There have been a few debris slides in the area,” Warren said.

Poor weather could loosen up more than just the snowpack, Warren said.

“If anything much happens, it will be small creeks or sloughs … it’s more important to look for road debris or rocks coming onto the highway,” he said.

On Friday, Warren was expecting a shipment of empty sand bags via B-train. The sand bags will be available for the public if they need them, he said.

“I know the Grand Forks area is one of the more crucial areas at this point,” he said. “But it’s all depending on the weather.”

Warren said considering the oversized snowpack, one of the most harmful combinations at this point would be hot weather plus rainfall.

“We could have three months of melt coming down in a week or two,” he said.

Government agencies are monitoring the snowpack, the weather and melt rates carefully. “We’re not in an emergency at this point, we’re just trying to get ahead of the game,” he said.

Websites to carry updated information include that of the Provincial Emergency Program, pep.bc.ca, and rdck.bc.ca.

To assist those property owners in potential flood areas, designated fire stations throughout the Regional District have sandbags only available for emergency use.

“If high water is threatening your property these materials can prove useful, but remember, your safety is more important than your belongings. Stay safe and prepare before an event occurs. If you have experienced high water encroaching your property in the past, you may expect that again this year,” a spokesman said.

An emergency can happen anytime and everyone needs to be prepared to manage on their own for at least 72 hours, a spokesman said.

For information on river levels visit bcrfc.env.gov.bc.ca/warnings.

Cold weather and an above-average snowpack have extended the avalanche season, said Karl Klassen, manager of the Canadian Avalanche Centre’s Public Avalanche Safety Service in Revelstoke.

“In a normal spring our snowpack would be well settled by now, with relatively predictable avalanche problems. Instead we’re still dealing with an early spring snowpack.”

Klassen said with the snowpack in most regions of the province still well above average, the CAC is cautioning backcountry users that avalanches remain a hazard.

He’s most concerned about backcountry users who don’t usually have to be as concerned about avalanche dangers.

“Hikers, not skiers – ATV’s, not snowmobiles,” he said.

“We’re seeing avalanches running from high in the alpine, well above the treeline, and they’re running down past the treeline and down to the valley bottoms … That’s really quite unusual for this time of the year.

“We received many reports of avalanches, some with fracture lines up to 300m wide,” reports Klassen. “Some of them ran right to valley bottom, well below the snow line. This condition creates potential risk for people not normally concerned with avalanches, such as hikers, ATVers and hunters.

“Most people realize the spring has been cold and snowy, compared to normal. The cold temperatures have preserved snow into the tree line and even below,” Klassen said.

Much of the province is two or three weeks behind where the snowpack usually is, he said.

“I worry it’s going to catch some people by surprise because it’s so late.”

Avalanche danger can vary by the time of day, he said.

“Late in the afternoon or early evening is when things start to fall apart,” he said.

To minimize avalanche risk, the CAC recommends traveling through terrain exposed to avalanches early in the day when it’s cool and the snow is frozen. Do not group up in avalanche runout zones; cross them quickly, one at a time. This includes avalanche paths in dry valley bottoms. Avoid travelling through avalanche terrain or exposure to avalanche runouts late in the day and anytime you observe avalanches running on nearby slopes.

The CAC advises backcountry users to continue carrying avalanche rescue gear for the rest of the spring and into early summer. That means every member of the group needs to be equipped with a shovel, probe and transceiver. The CAC strongly recommends that all backcountry users take an avalanche awareness course. Snowpack stability changes constantly throughout the winter; backcountry users need to check the avalanche bulletin regularly to keep informed of conditions in their area. Bulletins are can be found at www.avalanche.ca.