Crews are on track to partially reopen Highway 4 this weekend after a more than two-week closure due to a nearby fire, according to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
In a Wednesday interview, South Coast region director Ashok Bhatti said “extremely challenging” preparations are underway to stabilize the section of slope compromised by the Cameron Bluffs fire burning near Port Alberni.
Those measures include the installation of more than 120 metres of roadside barrier on the Cameron Lake side of the road, with more concrete barriers to be installed in the eastbound lane. The barricades are designed to catch any lower-level debris that may fall off the hillside, while additional rock meshes — held in place by cranes — catch high-velocity debris falling from above.
“Obviously the fencing is affixed to the barrier, but that’s also why it’s single-lane alternating traffic,” Bhatti explained. “In order to create that space for these safety devices, we’ve had to take a lane from the highway in order to put all that infrastructure in place.”
Bhatti said he couldn’t provide an exact time for partial reopening this weekend as those preparations are still underway.
“This area is obviously challenging for a number of reasons, and one is because the fire was quite intense and so it did take a toll on the slope, and the slopes are quite steep and quite high. It definitely creates some risk to us in terms of how open the highway up for traffic.”
Transportation officials closed Highway 4 on June 6 as falling trees and debris littered the roadway, with flames from the Cameron Bluffs fire visible nearby. The blaze, suspected to be human-caused, is now considered “under control,” and was burning at a size of 229 hectares as of Wednesday afternoon.
Bhatti said the province hopes to fully reopen the highway in mid-July.
“There’s several things we’re going to be monitoring specific to this location, obviously the performance of the netting and the mesh that we’re installing, but also in terms of the weather forecast … once we’ve seen fires go through these areas, the slope stability can be impacted by weather.”
As it stands, the only available detour is through gravel forest service roads that include narrow sections, sharp curves, one-lane bridges and challenging terrain with an additional travel time of four hours.
Three parks on Vancouver Island were also closed to the public on Wednesday in an effort ease traffic ahead of the partial reopening this weekend.
MacMillan Provincial Park and the day-use picnic areas of Cameron Lake and Beaufort in Little Qualicum Falls Park will fully reopen when the Highway 4 does, according to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
The update comes as the BC Chamber of Commerce urges governments to ensure adequate financial supports and programs are in place for residents and businesses affected by natural disasters. President and CEO Fiona Famulak referenced the Cameron Bluffs fire in particular.
“Of course that is one of many that’s burning across the province right now and it’s only June 21. We’ve seen in recent years that natural disasters, whether it’s drought, wildfires, flooding are happenings sooner and they are more intense than they’ve been in the past,” she told Global News.
“That’s why we’re calling on government at all levels to work together to identify all of the ways available, all of the levers they can pull across government, to ensure financial assistance is available to those communities and businesses.”
The BC Chamber of Commerce said financial support is not always available or its eligibility criteria exclude many who need it.
“I think it’s important, first of all, not to put guidelines or guardrails around the thinking that is required,” Famulak said.
Some 60 wildfires are still burning across B.C., two of which — Donnie Creek near Prince George and West Kikatinaw River near Dawson Creek — are considered “of note” because they either pose a risk to human safety or are highly visible.