Snow and Avalanche Center 2009 Avalanche News

Artillery man shells mountains for avalanche safety

December 30, 2009
By: Rachel Maclean, Cochrane Eagle

Cochrane’s Shawn English had to work during the holidays.

But as a gunner for the Canadian Armed Forces, his duty was to protect the people driving through the Rogers Pass on the Trans-Canada Highway from the threat of avalanches.

“The last couple of days it’s been snowing pretty heavy,” said Gnr. English Dec. 17.

“With an average of 2,800 motorists during winter, we want to make sure it’s open for business.”

While he wasn’t able to come home for the holidays, his parents Jim and Suzanne did make the trip out.

“By helping to keep the pass and the highway open I’ll be helping many more Canadian families get home for the holidays and that makes up for it,” he said.

And not only motorists, but back country hikers, skiers, and other winter sports enthusiasts.

For the last 45 years, Parks Canada has partnered with the army to use the artillery fire to shake loose sections of snow so it doesn’t build up into a massive avalanche disaster.

The mission is called “Operation Palaci.”

English was deployed to the Selkirk Mountains towering above Rogers Pass in the centre of Glacier National Park with 12 others in early December.

English is trained to fire the howitzers to reduce snow packs in avalanche danger zones.

“As a Gunner I am able to work in a variety of positions on the gun crew,” he said.

“One day I could be elevating the gun’s barrel, the next I could be loading. It depends on how the detachment commander wants to organize things.

“Since we’re interchangeable, we usually rotate around to ensure everyone gets a similar opportunity and training experience. It can be dangerous, so you have to stay alert, especially in the cold.”

The soldiers, using howitzer artillery on 18 gun platforms, make up the largest mobile avalanche control operation in the world.

“It’s interesting and rewarding work, given the importance of our mission.”

It is English’s first real deployment since basic training. He is a member of “B” Battery of the 1 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from Shilo, Manitoba.

After graduating from Cochrane High in 2007, English joined the Canadian Forces in February 2008.

He completed his basic training in Quebec, then Gagetown, New Brunswick, and ended up being stationed in Shilo, Manitoba.

As for the future, English hopes he can one day be in “the place of my higher ups,” and plans to be anywhere the country needs him to be.

In early January, English and his crew will return home after being relieved by a second rotation of troops.

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