9-year-old Quebec girl dies after snow fort collapse: What parents need to know about snow fort safety

Building snow forts can quickly become deadly: What you need to know about this winter hazard.

police car in the dark with red and blue lights and sirens
A nine-year-old girl has died after a snow fort collapsed on her in Portneuf, Que on Sunday. (Getty)

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A nine-year-old girl has died after a snow fort collapsed on her in Portneuf, Que on Sunday.

The victim was playing with a seven-year-old companion when the snow structure collapsed behind a Saint-Ubalde home, about 100 kilometres west of Quebec City, says Sûreté du Québec (SQ) spokesperson Béatrice Dorsainville.

First responders were called to the home and "had to do resuscitation maneuvers" on the nine-year-old. She was taken to hospital in critical condition and was later pronounced dead.

two school-aged kids playing outside in snow bank wearing snowsuits, holding black shovel
Snow fort collapses can quickly turn deadly during winter play (Getty Images)

However safe they may seem, snow forts can quickly turn deadly. In recent years, several snow fort-related tragedies have made headlines involving school-aged children.

In January 2019, Esther Jung was playing with a nine-year-old friend in the snowbanks outside of Rothem Church in Arlington, Ill. while their parents attended Sunday service inside.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the girls were found buried under the snowbank an hour later when they heard cries for help from the nine-year-old girl.

Jung was found in cardiac arrest and suffering from hypothermia and asphyxia when she was transported to hospital and pronounced dead. Jung’s friend was treated for hypothermia and released to her family the next day.

two children wearing toques and winter jackets playing inside snow fort outside
Snow forts built into embankments can collapse - and cause suffocation (Getty Images).

'Every year there are cases of children dying in snow forts'

Alongside the nine-year-old Quebec victim, Jung's death is just one example of the deaths that occur each winter due to suffocation from snow forts or tunnels.

In 2018, a 12-year-old girl from Regina, Sask. was found in her backyard under a pile of snow. A year prior, a Buffalo, N.Y. boy died while playing on his grandparents' farm after going missing for just 15 minutes.

“Every year there are cases of children dying in snow forts, either suffocating or being victim of snowplow accident,” Dr. Lynne Warda of the Canadian Pediatric Society told the Globe and Mail in 2007, after a seven-year-old Quebec girl died in a snow tunnel accident.

Warda said victims of snow fort related deaths are often school-age children who are old enough to play by themselves outside without supervision.

Like avalanches, suffocation due to snow can happen within a matter of minutes and lack of visibility due to the pile of snow makes it difficult for those trapped to signal for help.

toddler wearing colourful patchwork coat, snow pants, and striped toque playing outside in white snow, snow fort
Building snow forts can turn deadly unless properly supervised (Getty Images).

Despite being porous and contains oxygen, trapped victims can quickly develop carbon dioxide poisoning after inhaling their exhaled air. Along with physical trauma due to impact and hypothermia, it can take less than 15 minutes for a fatality to occur due to snow immersion suffocation (SIS).

Why snow forts are still a danger in spring

While spring may suggest a balmy forecast and less of the white stuff, snow forts can still be dangerous due to snowpack and ambient air temperatures.

When the outside temperature increases, the surface layers of snow begin to melt. When snow is packed in, take a ski hill or snow fort as an example; the snowpack weakens and gets heavier, making it more likely to fall. For children playing in snow forts, this may result in a less stable enclosure, especially regarding any overhead snow acting as a fort roof.

How to prevent snow fort-related accidents

It’s important for parents to teach their children the importance of snow safety from a young age, and especially when children are old enough to play without adult supervision:

  • Avoid digging tunnels or forts into the side of embankments that could potentially collapse

  • Encourage children to build open structures without a roof or heavy walls

  • Always have children play in groups of two or more, so that one person can call for help if needed

  • Avoid playing near plow routes or close to roads

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