Representatives from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure say that the recent wildfire along Highway 4 has not increased the risk of rock and debris fall for travellers.
Michael Pearson, director for Vancouver Island district, and Nikki Schneider, operations manager for Central Vancouver Island, appeared before the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) board of directors on Wednesday, Oct. 25 to provide an update on Highway 4. Pearson said that the work the ministry did over the summer brought the highway back to its pre-existing risk of debris fall.
“That doesn’t mean it’s zero risk, it just didn’t get any worse because of the fire,” said Pearson.
After the Cameron Bluffs wildfire, which temporarily shut down the highway in early June, Pearson says the ministry developed an operations plan to make sure that when the highway does see major weather events, ministry staff are increasing the frequency of their patrols and are ready to close the highway proactively.
As one example of this proactive work, the ministry has installed two closure gates along the highway. One is at the top of the hump and one is near Chalet Road. Pearson says the gates are for predictability, so people know exactly where the highway will be closed, and also for worker safety, so ministry doesn’t need flaggers directing traffic.
“Given the level of uncertainty and angst that’s developed over the summer, we really wanted to help people understand that we’ve addressed the concerns at this particular site,” said Pearson. “The highway can close for a number of reasons and we’re doing all that we can to monitor and watch the situation.”
Recently, on Oct. 18, the weather station along Highway 4 recorded 135 millimetres of rain over a 48-hour period.
“We had no rock fall, no debris fall and no tree fall,” said Pearson.
Sproat Lake director Penny Cote thanked the ministry for their work over the summer, but noted that traveller confidence in Highway 4 has been shaken by the recent events.
“We’re all relying on you and the experts you bring in to let us know what’s happening,” she said.
Beaufort director Fred Boyko was critical of ministry communication during the Highway 4 closures, noting that DriveBC was slow to update and people often got their information from Facebook groups instead. Pearson explained that DriveBC is a program that the ministry is looking at “revamping” in the next few years.
Social media is a good tool, Pearson added, but also comes with some misinformation. He pointed to a post circulating on social media this summer that claimed Angel Rock had come down on the highway.
“What we’ve found is we’re usually 30 to 40 minutes behind the latest information,” he acknowledged. “In our minds, that’s a reasonable amount of time to provide accurate information. Anything we’re putting out, even though it takes a little bit longer, is accurate.”
Cote also asked about updates on Cathedral Grove. The province began public engagement and a safety study on the area back in 2018, but the process was delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Pearson confirmed that the studies are “on the shelf” for now.
Schneider said that the ministry is working on a few other projects this year, including a Highway 4 corridor study with Tseshaht First Nation between Falls Street and Sproat Lake. This study is focusing on safety and accesses along the corridor in that stretch.