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A fresh snowfall presents the perfect opportunity to send kids outside to play. However, even though it may seem safe for children to play their own backyard, there are hidden dangers during winter play that parents should be aware of.
Collapsing snow forts can quickly turn deadly and have been the cause of headline-making tragedies in recent years.
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 9-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.
Jung’s death is just example of one 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, while similarly a Buffalo, N.Y. boy died in 2017 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.
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).
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
Former professional slalom skier, Eric Villard, created a product to encourage safe outdoor play after his own childhood experience with collapsed snow forts.
With Play Snow a high-density polyurethane frame that can support more than 1,000 pounds, children can use fallen snow to create their own fort or igloo without risk.
“I want kids to play outside, it’s good for them, but I’ve had a phobia about (snow) igloos since I was 10 and one collapsed on me at my home,” Villiard told The Montreal Gazette in 2016. “My dad, who’d been watching me build it through the window, ran out without boots to pull me out. I was gasping for air.”
Villiard was inspired to design the prototype after his two young sons began digging into the snow embankments near his Montreal home.