Five snowmobilers dead in avalanche near McBride, B.C.

Barb McLintock of the B.C. Coroners Service says there was a large avalanche Friday in an area where a group of people were snowmobiling

MCBRIDE, B.C. — Five snowmobilers died Friday in a major avalanche near the interior community of McBride, B.C., which came as “heartbreaking news” to the snowmobiling community and local officials.

The slide happened in the Renshaw area east of McBride, which is about 210 kilometres southeast of Prince George. RCMP said three separate groups of snowmobilers were in the area at the time.

Mounties said they were first notified after the activations of two separate GPS beacons, which are carried by backcountry enthusiasts in case of emergency. The Robson Valley Search and Rescue Team was immediately activated.

One helicopter was dispatched, and two search and rescue technicians were on scene almost immediately as they were snowmobiling in the area just before the slide, said Cpl. Dan Moskaluk.

“They quickly determined there were several persons that were buried,” he said. “Unfortunately, five snowmobilers are deceased as a result of the avalanche. Their remains have been recovered from the avalanche area.”

Throughout the afternoon and evening, rescue crews and paramedics helped to remove people from the area and tend to the injured, he said.

Three ground ambulances were sent to the scene and one person was transported to hospital in stable condition, the B.C. Ambulance Service said.

Authorities weren’t able to confirm Friday night that everyone had been accounted for. Local RCMP were visiting motels and making inquiries in the community to see if anyone was missing, Moskaluk said.

At least eight snowmobiles were buried in the slide, he added.

The B.C. Coroners Service said two coroners had been dispatched from Prince George, B.C.

Rick Thompson, a councillor with the Village of McBride, described the area on Mount Renshaw as a popular sledding area about 15 kilometres from the townsite and said the news came as a shock.

“It’s devastating. As soon as you hear about something this tragic, you immediately begin to think about all your friends and family that you know, and the acquaintances you do know who may be out there sledding,” he said.

“I was out at Chinese dinner this evening when the news broke, and it was, like, ‘oh my God, who was out there?'”

Thompson said a contributing factor was doubtless the weather, which he described as “not terrific.”

“We had a great amount of rain down in the valley early in the week, which meant there was a lot of fresh snow, about three feet I heard, up on the mountain. It’s been hot and cold, which creates poor conditions, so avalanche conditions are high.”

The news prompted an outpouring of condolences from avid snowmobilers.

“This is truly heartbreaking news,” a member of a snowmobiling community forum wrote. “It feels, when hearing news of other snowmobilers passing, like losing a family member. Never met these folks, but I am sad to have lost them.”

Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada said the “very large, significant” avalanche appears to be human-triggered, but he did not elaborate.

He said rain and snow over the last few days followed by clearing and cooling on Friday may have produced stresses in the snowpack.

Jobs and Tourism Minister Shirley Bond, who has been the MLA for Prince George-Valemount for 15 years, issued a statement on behalf of the B.C. government.

“This avalanche and the resulting loss of life is devastating news and our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost a loved one,” she said.

Bond also praised the emergency responders involved in dealing with the tragedy.

“I appreciate their courage and skill in the search and recovery process. It is a very sad day for all of us.”

Two men were also killed in the McBride area in March 2015.

They were part of a group of four Albertans who had been snowmobiling in the Dore River Basin near the community.

Curtis Fries, 36, of Sherwood Park, Alta., was dug out of the snow and his fellow riders tried to perform CPR on him but he died at the scene. Thomas Hamilton, 29, of Ponoka, Alta., was later found under 15 feet of snow.

—by Laura Kane in Vancouver and Gwen Dambrofsky in Edmonton

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