Big bang effect – Army reservists take out big guns to trigger avalanches

Gunner David Rottluff is just moments away from setting off an avalanche.

As one of six artillery gunners preparing to fire a powerful Howitzer gun, the army reservist’s voice becomes clipped with excitement.

They’re about to trigger an avalanche in Glacier National Park that otherwise might have led to catastrophe for traffic along Rogers Pass, a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway line between Golden and Revelstoke.

For the first time since the Canadian Forces’ Operation Palaci began more than 50 years ago, reserve artillery soldiers from 5th Field Artillery Regiment at the Bay Street Armoury in Victoria are involved.

The amount of action the avalanche control teams have seen this winter has been historic – they recently fired six month’s worth of ammunition in 10 days.

“This year has been crazy,” said Victoria resident Sgt. Lisa Kachanoski, supervisor of the Victoria team deployed to the mountains. “They were shooting night and day.”

The four-member team is a special addition to the operation, tasked with calculating firing data for new and improved artillery guns that arrive in March.

Their work means the guns – which are about the size of a Volkswagen Golf car and can level a house with a single blast – will be able to safely and precisely hit 271 targets along a 45-kilometre mountainous stretch.

When avalanches are imminent, Parks Canada staff call upon one of two gunnery teams that are on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week from December to May. The highway and railway line are closed to traffic, the avalanches are triggered and the clean up begins if snow thunders across the main thoroughfares.

“We’re essentially the only team keeping the transport lines open between Canada and the rest of B.C.,” said Rottluff, who serves with the Victoria regiment’s Nanaimo battery. “Without us, it would cost the government millions of dollars.”

Every day about 4,000 vehicles and 40 trains travel through Rogers Pass.

“I love it up here,” Kachanoski explained. “It’s a change of pace and I’m putting my skills to work.”

Her enthusiasm for keeping people out of harm’s way is tangible even though most motorists and park users don’t realize the military plays such a vital role.

“The public might not know, but we know we’re doing that for them,” said Kachanoski. “It feels good.”

emccracken@vicnews.com