MCBRIDE, B.C. — All five snowmobilers killed in an immense avalanche in eastern British Columbia were from Alberta, authorities said Saturday as the local community reeled from the tragedy.
The B.C. Coroners Service released the identities of the men, ranging in age from 41 to 55, shortly after RCMP held a news conference in McBride, B.C.
Cpl. Jay Grierson offered his condolences to the families and said the small village on the Alberta-B.C. boundary was deeply affected by the deaths.
"This community is very supportive and welcoming of snowmobilers. We rely on these people to enjoy our community,'' he said.
RCMP Cpl. Jay Grierson, right, and Robson Valley Search and Rescue managers Chris Gibbs, from left, Rod Whelpton and Dale Mason arrive for a news conference in McBride, B.C., on Jan. 30, 2016. Five snowmobilers died Friday in a major avalanche in the Renshaw area east of McBride. (CP)
"People attend the area from all over the world. We develop relationships with them. We see the same people repeatedly because it's a beautiful spot.''
The men killed were: Vincent Eugene Loewen, 52, of Vegreville; Tony Christopher Greenwood, 41, of Grand Prairie County; Ricky Robinson, 55, of Spruce Grove; Todd William Chisholm, 47, of St. Albert; and John Harold Garley, 49, of Stony Plain.
A statement on behalf of Chisholm's family said he had a passion for sledding in the mountains.
"He died too young doing what he enjoyed with his sledding buddies. Thanks to the four friends who were with Todd for their efforts,'' it said.
"Todd will be sadly missed by his wife of 18 years, children, mother and father, brothers and sister, extended family, friends and community.''
"He died too young doing what he enjoyed with his sledding buddies."
Chisholm enjoyed fishing, hunting, camping and playing games with his children and wife, as well as music, the statement said.
Grierson said four separate groups of snowmobilers from Alberta, totalling 17 people, were caught in the avalanche path or buried to some degree, but they have all been accounted for.
At least one person suffered a non-life-threatening injury and 11 people were flown out at the time of the rescue efforts, he said.
He said the B.C. Coroners Service has taken over the investigation and RCMP will continue to assist.
The slide happened Friday afternoon in the Renshaw area near McBride, about 210 kilometres southeast of Prince George. The avalanche risk was "considerable'' and warning signs were posted.
Search and rescue manager Rod Whelpton had been snowmobiling in the area at the time. His snowmobile broke down and he called for a helicopter, Grierson said.
Clint Pelletier, of Edmonton, loads his snowmobile onto a trailer after snowmobiling with his wife at Mount Renshaw near McBride, B.C., on Jan. 30, 2016. (CP)
Other members of Whelpton's group went to a ridge nearby and saw that an avalanche had just occurred. A satellite phone was used to call Dale Mason, manager of Robson Valley Search and Rescue.
Mason had just received notification from RCMP of two activations of GPS beacons, which are carried by backcountry enthusiasts in case of emergency, Grierson said.
Another helicopter was called and Whelpton and his group responded to the scene.
"It was fast, simple. Everybody did the right thing.''
"Many of the individuals involved had self-rescued and four of the deceased had already been dug from the snow,'' said Grierson. "The fifth was located and removed as well.''
Whelpton said the avalanche was 700 metres across and about 700 metres long.
"There were people in different groups digging people out,'' he said. "It was fast, simple. Everybody did the right thing.''
Whelpton said the snowmobilers appeared "very prepared.'' He rejected the idea that they went out that day despite the considerable avalanche risk, pointing out that he also believed it was safe for snowmobiling.
A helicopter flies past a mountain near McBride, B.C., on Jan. 30, 2016. (CP)
"It was a very normal day, a nice day,'' he said. "There was no avalanche activity in every area that I was playing around ... That was the only one I (saw).''
Avalanche Canada had issued a warning for the region a day before the slide. Karl Klassen, who handles public warnings for the organization, has said it appears the avalanche was human-triggered but he did not elaborate.
Pascal Haegli, Simon Fraser University's research chair in avalanche risk management, said the window to rescue someone whose been buried is about 10 minutes, as the fallen snow hardens like concrete, and it's nearly impossible to dig yourself out.
"Once the avalanche comes to a stop, it sets like concrete, very quickly.''
"Once the avalanche comes to a stop, it sets like concrete, very quickly,'' he said. "It's not the fluffy powder snow you have in mind.''
McBride council member Rick Thompson has said the incident is "devastating.''
The tragedy has also prompted an outpouring of support from the snowmobiling community. Ron Willert, who runs an online forum called snowandmud.com, offered condolences in an email.
"This tragic event has hit too close to home,'' he said. "McBride is my backyard.''
— With files from Laura Kane in Vancouver, Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton and Nicole Thompson in Toronto
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