Trees a metre in diameter and rocks the size of coffee mugs strewn across Highway 4 on Vancouver Island are delaying the reopening of the only paved route giving access to the communities of Tofino, Ucluelet and Port Alberni.
The Ministry of Transportation said Tuesday that the earliest the route could open would be June 24 to single-lane alternating traffic.
The highway has been closed since June 6 due to a wildfire burning on the steep slope above the road.
The ministry said the highway may not be fully opened until mid-July, dealing a blow to the communities on the other side of the closure that are already facing major disruptions.
“Although this section of Highway 4 is relatively short, the impact of the fire has been significant,” Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said Tuesday. “The mountain side above the highway is incredibly steep, and the site is extremely challenging for both wildfire crews and ministry staff and contractors.”
Speaking at a news conference in Chilliwack, Fleming said crews are working to make Highway 4 safer by clearing debris and dangerous trees before installing protective measures, including temporary metal netting to shield drivers from falling rubble.
Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino have been relying on a long, rough detour for getting supplies into their communities.
Images shared by the province show the highway cluttered with rocks and splintered trees, as fire burns up the forested slope.
Janelle Staite with the Transport Ministry said it will take some time to evaluate the soil and slope after the fire.
“Having those two weeks to be able to assess the patterns and the stabilization of the slope following the wildfire is going to be a critical piece for us,” she said.
In the meantime, Fleming said the province is grateful to several forestry firms for allowing their private gravel roads to be used as a temporary detour.
The 90-kilometre detour is particularly challenging, with 13 single-lane bridges, necessitating the use of pilot vehicles to control traffic volumes.
Fleming said convoys of commercial vehicles are keeping food, fuel and medicine flowing into the affected communities.
Disasters in years past, such as the atmospheric river events of 2021, saw several highways damaged, but alternate routes in much of B.C. are simply not feasible or “nearly impossible” due to challenging topography and terrain, Fleming said.
Instead, it was deemed best to rebuild “to a very climate resilient standard,” he said.
In the province’s northeast, officials are describing the wildfire situation as “volatile and rapidly evolving,” as a large storm system sweeps across B.C.
Firefighters are battling the massive Donnie Creek blaze, which has doubled in size in the last eight days and now sits at more than 4,800 square kilometres, making it the second largest wildfire in B.C. history.
Fire information officer Julia Caranci told a media briefing Tuesday that over the last two days the growing fire was able take advantage of northerly winds and receptive fuels.
It grew to the point where evacuation orders were issued for 14 properties and alerts for 370 others.
On Sunday and Monday parts of the fire were burning at a dangerous “rank five,” meaning it was not safe to have people working directly on the flames, she said.
“It is only safe for us at that time to use indirect methods. So away from the flame front, possibly using heavy equipment to create guards, or having folks work in less active portions of the fire,” she said.
“But it is too dangerous to put people on the ground anywhere near where a fire is burning at that rank and that intensity. At that point, it becomes about the protection of human life.”
She said the fire is burning about two kilometres from the Alaska Highway north of Trutch which could lead to traffic disruptions.
“We are in regular touch with the highway authority. We were speaking to them numerous times yesterday. It will likely be a daily and multiple time daily conversation,” she told the briefing.
“And we are also working to assist with co-ordinating traffic control if that does become necessary.”
The chief of a First Nation near the edge of the Donnie Creek fire said they are prepared to evacuate if necessary.
Doig River First Nation Chief Trevor Makadahay said the community is worried about protecting more than half a dozen trapline cabins from the fire.
The Donnie Creek evacuation alerts and orders are in place just north of the First Nation and Makadahay said the nation has purchased air purifiers for elders who have been forced to stay indoors because of the heavy smoke.
The community has an emergency operations centre up and running and emergency plans if they need them, he said in an interview Tuesday.
“So, they’re as ready as we can be, I guess. But if the fire does come from the north there possibly could be an evacuation.”
Makadahay said a handful of trapline cabins have already been lost to the fire and the First Nation is working to protect those that remain standing.
They’ve also offered support to the wildfire service, he said.
“So, we’re trying to figure out … if we can help them with bodies. We’re trying to do some of that work ourselves right now to protect our trapline cabins,” he said.
Meanwhile, the situation is cooling off at the West Kiskatinaw fire that is threatening the evacuated community of Tumbler Ridge.
Rain has helped firefighters get closer to the fire, although BC Wildfire Service information officer Forrest Tower said that’s not enough to have a long-term impact, and a large fire is expected to remain for weeks.
Environment Canada forecast up to 25 millimetres of rain over the parched Peace River region, with thunderstorms to follow along with winds gusting to 60 kilometres per hour.
Terese Finegan, a liaison officer with the District of Tumbler Ridge, said decisions about when residents might be able to return to the community will be based on the advice of experts.
She said once the evacuation order is eventually downgraded to an alert there’s work to do before residents can return safely.
“There’s obviously some logistics around making sure that we have fuel in town, food needs to be restocked and obviously the highway needs to be opened as well,” she said.
The BC Wildfire Service said about 80 active wildfires were burning in B.C. on Tuesday, and with the exception of a small area of the Kootenay-Boundary region, most of the province is ranked at a high to extreme fire danger.
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