Explosives experts contracted by the Department of National Defence are back in North Vancouver, searching the Blair Rifle Range lands for lost and forgotten munitions.
Though the area is mostly trees and trails now, it was an active military training site from the 1930s to the 1960s, where soldiers handled mortars and grenades, some of which failed to detonate.
It’s the third time the Department of National Defence has been back to the Blair Rifle Range lands as part of its mission to clear “legacy sites” of unexploded ordnance, or UXO.
In 2018, the team carried out a search of the areas around existing trails on the southern portion of the site and found about 200 kilograms of mortar shells, dummy rounds and grenade components.
They returned in the winter of 2023 to clear two more hectares of land, finding two mortar shell components including high explosives.
“And we’re only expecting to find more as we’re moving through the next phases of the task,” said Sean Davies, project manager with the contractor working on the site, at a community meeting on Monday.
Crews are currently removing brush from a 17-hectare swath of property northwest of McCartney Creek Park, which is considered by DND to be a “medium risk.”
Starting in mid-October, they will be working with metal detectors to look for military remnants 30 to 45 centimetres below the surface. This stretch of UXO work is expected to last until May of 2024, with a likely return to the Blair Rifle Range lands next fall and into 2025.
Unlike previous UXO clearing missions, however, this next phase of work will require full closures of the popular hiking, mountain biking and dog walking trails in the areas where crews are working, often for months at a time.
The purpose is to give workers a 50-metre buffer any time they are dealing with UXO. Any trail that is closed will have signs posted warning people to choose a different route.
“We’re trying to minimize the impact to the public. We know some people are not going to be happy to hear these trails are closed. It’s really for everybody’s safety,” said Debbie Nicholls, senior project manager of the DND’s UXO program. “When you look at the UXO work that we’re doing, it’s slow. It’s very dangerous work. Everything is done by hand.”
If and when they find anything potentially dangerous, members of the Canadians Forces will be brought in to dispose of the UXO, typically by planting a charge on it and detonating it safely on site. When that happens, crews will close all the nearby trails first, and alert nearby community members.
The types of mortar shells used at the Blair Rifle Range could be lethal to anyone standing within 10 metres. Although UXO are unlikely to go off on their own, they can blow up if disturbed, so the DND says it is imperative that no one dig, build trails or light camp fires anywhere on the former Blair Rifle Range lands.
If you every spot anything that looks like it may be UXO, the DND recommends you leave it where it is, turn around and leave the same way you came in, and call 911.
Today, the land is jointly owned by the province of B.C. and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which has indicated there are no plans to make any changes to the site.