Kimberley Search and Rescue in action on the St. Mary’s River. Photo courtesy of Kimberley Search and Rescue.

COVID-19 keeping Alberta rescue agencies busy

Rescue agencies in Alberta are fielding a higher volume of calls, including ones about accidental deaths, as Canadians stay closer to home this summer due to COVID-19.

In the Rockies, Kananaskis Country Public Safety said they have noticed twice as many calls in recent months compared to the same period last year.

“It’s been a busy, busy summer,” public safety specialist Michael Olsthoorn said from Canmore. “It’s just busier … on all fronts.”

Olsthoorn said more people recreating also means more rescues, with specialists responding to up to seven calls each day.

“We’re probably double the previous years.”

Those calls range from overdue hikers and people with twisted ankles or broken legs to river rescues and fatalities — including a woman who fell from Mount Fable in Kananaskis Country in June and a man who died in mid-July after being hit by a boulder while hiking at Mount Yamnuska, west of Calgary.

Many others across the province have drowned.

RCMP statistics, which include most areas outside major cities, show 16 people have drowned in lakes, rivers and streams in Alberta this year. Two of those people have not been found, but police say they are presumed dead.

Three girls from a Hutterite colony drowned in Milk River on June 10. Cpl. Ronald Bumbry with the Alberta RCMP said many others have occurred in late July and August, when temperatures got hotter.

“People have been cooped up for a long time,” he said, noting Mounties across the province have noticed an increase in visitors at lakes and in parks since some restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were lifted.

Some of the drownings in July and August included: a man who fell into the North Saskatchewan River along Glacier Lake trail in Banff National Park and was swept away a 39-year-old man who drowned in Lake Annette in Jasper National Park and two people who were found dead on the shore of Pigeon Lake in central Alberta — police said they likely drowned in a kayaking accident.

Three family members also died Tuesday, after they went into swimming at the bottom of Crescent Falls, west of the hamlet of Nordegg. One was swept under the falls and two others tried to help, but they were all drawn into the torrent of water.

Experts said some drownings could be an unintended consequence of the pandemic.

“COVID has definitely thrown everyone off,” said Kelly Carter, chief executive officer of the Lifesaving Society in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

People, he noted, were locked in their houses for a couple of months and many gravitated toward outdoor activities once summer hit and restrictions lifted.

“They might be exploring areas they’ve never been to before,” said Carter. “With that comes hazard and risks.”

He said people need to do more research so they “know before they go” about potential hazards.

Carter said another factor could be that recreation facilities, including municipal swimming pools, were closed and not all have reopened.

The lifesaving society’s statistics, which come from monitoring news reports, suggest there has been at least one other drowning in Alberta this year — for a total of 17, up from nine water-related deaths at the same time last summer.

Chris Houser, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Windsor, and another professor from Australia predicted the potential for more drownings during the pandemic in a July op-ed as people started crowding popular beaches.

“Beaches can be dangerous environments and it is not uncommon for drownings to occur,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, there are several COVID-19-related factors that have the potential to significantly increase the number of beach drownings and rescues.”

Houser said some people are infrequent beachgoers who are unfamiliar with the places they visit, many are going to areas that aren’t patrolled by lifeguards and some areas don’t have as much staff on duty due to concerns about COVID-19.

Similar issues could be happening in Alberta, he said.

“It’s that need to get out,” Houser said in an interview from his Ontario cottage, where he’s noticed an increase in boating activity. “Self-isolation is hard and it’s mentally hard right now. Going to the beach is a fun activity and a stress reliever.”

Houser agreed that hot weather has also drawn more people outdoors.

“You’ve got people at uncontrolled beaches, but they are not necessarily experienced and following the behaviour of others — whether those people are right or wrong.

“All of these factors together have increased the risk.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 16, 2020

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