Preventable accidents may impede Search and Rescue capacity during pandemic

TSAR vice president urges outdoor enthusiasts to pause risky activities

Members of Terrace Search and Rescue conduct longline training in 2018. (Quinn Bender photo)

Surrounded by wilderness in a time of social isolation, Terrace is ideally located for people who like to be outdoors and still be alone to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But for the safety of themselves and others, emergency responders are pleading with outdoor enthusiasts to assess the risks of their activities and scale them way, way back.

“Sure, go for a bike ride if you want to go for a bike ride, but if you want to try extreme mountain biking for the first time, this is not the time to do it,” Terrace Search and Rescue (TSAR) vice president Dave Jephson said.

Rescue conditions force people into a tight and chaotic environment ideal for virus transmission. Jephson worries an entire SAR response team could fall under quarantine if just one rescue subject is an unwitting carrier of the coronavirus. Vice-versa, one unwitting SAR member could spread the infection to the team, the paramedics, the RCMP, the hospital and so on.

READ MORE: COVID-19: BC Parks to suspend camping, access to some facilities

As of March 26 there have been 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the vast Northern Health region and 725 cases province wide, including 55 infected health-care workers.

Jephson is hoping to see a slew of preventable accidents decline, so the response capacity of TSAR and other first responders stays at full throttle for as long as possible.

“The way things are now [with COVID-19], anytime emergency officials respond, they are jeopardizing their own safety,” he said. “We want to encourage people to be healthy, to enjoy the wilderness, but we want them to take that moment to evaluate what they’re doing in order to lower their risk.”

His main concern is Shames Mountain skiers. My Mountain Coop shut down operations for the season following B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer’s ban on gatherings exceeding 50 people. However diehard skiers, and in some cases backcountry beginners, are trekking up the mountain to hit the empty slopes.

“There’s no employees up there, there’s no safety net, there’s no communication,” Jephson said. “What happens when someone breaks a leg, or worse — it’s completely preventable.”

My Mountain Co-op supported Jephson’s stance March 24 after camera footage revealed a parking lot full of visitors. Shames Mountain general manager Christian Theberge said he was concerned with the breach of social distancing precautions, but also for the skiers’ safety as only limited data has been available for avalanche forecasts during the pandemic.

READ MORE: Shames Mountain pleads for public to stay away from ski hill following large social gathering

“Avalanche Canada will soon be stopping their forecasting [March 28], so for people deciding to go into the backcountry without having accurate, complete safety forecasts for the avalanche conditions is certainly a risk for everybody,” Theberge said.

Theberge’s and Jephson’s pleas follows the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association’s own request March 18 for people to keep safety in mind when heading to the outdoors.

Beyond the risks preventable accidents pose to SAR members, Jephson also asks risk-takers to consider their recovery process as hospitals potentially fill to capacity with COVID-19 patients over the coming weeks.

“Our medical services are being taxed, beds are no longer being made available, physicians are being taxed and people are quarantined. And now all of a sudden I decide to go and do some extreme activity. I injure myself. You tell me how that’s going to turn out.”

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