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A critical transportation corridor on Vancouver Island remains closed as a stubborn, out-of-control wildfire continues to strangle traffic and the supply chain to communities west of the blaze.
Closed for the past week, Highway 4 will remain shut as the 10-day-old Cameron Bluff wildfire continues to burn along steep slopes — causing trees, rocks and debris to fall onto the only paved road serving Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet and numerous First Nations, the province announced in an update Monday.
With the exception of Tofino, most communities and First Nations in the Alberni Valley and on the island’s west coast are asking tourists not to visit the region in an effort to preserve limited supplies, especially fuel necessary to keep emergency services operational.
On Sunday, the province began twice-daily guided convoys for the long and difficult detour route along gravel forestry roads between Lake Cowichan and Port Alberni so commercial transport vehicles can bypass the fire and get essential goods to the isolated communities.
The province is urging everyone to restrict travel to essential purposes as the detour takes an extra four hours, with stretches of rough, single-lane gravel roads and bridges with no cell coverage, fuel or food stops and limited emergency services access.
Staying off the risky route is a safety issue as much as it is to keep the limited supply moving for those who need it, said Hupačasath First Nation Chief Brandy Lauder, whose community is one asking folks to limit travel to and from the region.
Many people are not accustomed to, nor are most vehicles equipped for, the narrow gravel roads with no shoulders and heavy truck traffic, Lauder said.
Vancouver Island communities isolated by the stubborn #CameronBluffsWildfire and #Highway4 closure are urging tourists to postpone visits and avoid the risky detour route to ease the load on their fragile supply chain.
“I travelled the road once with a lot of traffic and it got down to zero visibility,” she said, adding the conditions surprised her despite being accustomed to the road and having a radio in her vehicle to monitor traffic on the route.
Those who don’t know the route don’t always turn their lights on so they’re visible to other vehicles approaching from either direction, especially if they stopped on the road because they can’t see.
“I would prefer everybody just to have a nice, safe summer and not drive if they don’t have to,” Lauder said.
“We just need that road more for the gas, food and medications to come through.”
The detour route was closed on Friday for the Ministry of Transportation to extract a number of vehicles and trucks that had crashed or skidded off the road, said Daniel Sailland, chief administrative officer of Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, who is also directing emergency operations in the region.
“Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt as far as we’re aware,” Sailland said.
There was an initial surge of panic-buying that emptied grocery store shelves when the highway was first closed, but food is being regularly restocked now, he said.
“It’s an unfortunate but natural response to news the highway is being closed, but essential things like meat and milk (are) back on shelves.”
Fuel, pharmaceuticals and transport vehicles safely navigating the detour are the top concern right now, he said.
“We are seeing supply come in, it's just slower than usual.”
Fuel for essential or emergency workers, such as home care workers, RCMP or firefighters, has been secured, he said, but access for the general public is still a day-by-day issue at this point.
Medications that need to be refrigerated and tracked closely make logistics a bit complex, with some being flown by plane into various communities, he said.
However, an overland shipment of pharmaceuticals is expected to resupply the area on Tuesday.
“So far so good, provided nothing goes wrong. But we’re always just a bit on the edge,” Sailland said, noting other factors could disrupt the fragile supply chain like ferry cancellations, bad weather or even other fires.
Pharmacists are only filling some prescriptions a month at a time rather than the full three months at the moment, Lauder noted.
Businesses, local retailers and tourism are also feeling the pain of the highway closure, said Jolleen Dick, CEO of the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Many delivery services or couriers don’t feel safe or can’t take an extra four hours to navigate the detour, she said.
One retail furniture store likely won’t get its expected inventory and orders because there’s no storage site to hold the goods until the highway is passable, so they’ll likely be sold by the supplier, she said.
Visitors seem to be respecting the joint appeal to put their trips on hold, but it has impacts on the tourism operators and workers, Dick said.
The chamber is looking for and discussing with members ways to mitigate the impacts of the highway closure for the business community if it continues, she added.
The province has not given a timeline for reopening the highway but says it will stay closed for some time even after the fire is extinguished to ensure the slopes above the highway are stable.
The 254-hectare blaze was slowed somewhat by cooler, wet weather over the weekend and doesn’t immediately threaten the safety of any nearby communities.
But it is still not under control, with a crew of 76 firefighters, four helicopters, an incident team and a range of heavy equipment like excavators, water trucks and skidders working the fire. Minister of Transportation Rob Fleming is expected to provide an update on the highway closure on Tuesday.
The highway closure and its ripple effect highlight the long-standing need for the province to develop a secondary route in the region, especially as climate change continues to increase the risk of wildfires, said Tseshaht First Nation Chief Ken Watts.
“Having only one way out is a huge issue, and there needs to be a permanent solution,” said Watts, adding it’s been a pressing issue for decades.
“We’re all feeling the effects of the situation.”
Most potential corridors would likely traverse private land or those leased to forestry companies, but a creative solution could and should be found, he said.
The immediate focus is to support the firefighters striving to keep communities safe, reducing extra demand from visitors on the stressed supply chain, and for locals to remain calm and resist buying more than what they need, Watts said.
“We still have running water and plenty of resources in the ocean to feed people,” Watts said.
“We’re going to be OK … but strategies for the future need to be worked out.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer