Many people initially stranded by the closure of Highway 4 east of Port Alberni have managed to get out via a lengthy detour, but those who commute into the affected area for work are scrambling.
A wildfire near Cameron Lake has closed the highway since Tuesday, and a four-hour detour through Lake Cowichan was made available Wednesday, although that detour is expected to be closed for several hours today to haul out a vehicle that went into Francis Lake.
Randy Harrison lives in Whiskey Creek and does much of his excavation work in Port Alberni, normally a short drive away. But with the highway closed, his commute to work has gone from 20 minutes to four hours.
“It’s a good thing we do have a detour to get out of there, but it’s not sustainable for contractors who are working back and forth,” he said.
Harrison is hoping to gain access to Horne Lake Road, a logging road that’s currently gated and controlled by Mosaic Forest Management, which would cut his commute to about an hour.
Mosaic’s voicemail message says the company is working with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure on emergency evacuation routes.
“Mosaic’s private roads are restricted to emergency and authorized personnel only,” the message says.
Harrison said he understands that it doesn’t make sense to open the road to the public, but he hopes access can be extended to people who need to travel for essential purposes.
“I think that there should be an alternative way for contractors that have to work, you know, because it’s impacting us dearly,” he said.
Harrison drove the detour route via Lake Cowichan Wednesday in his dump truck and was in a constant line of traffic for the roughly four and a half hours it took him.
“The worst part about the traffic was the dust, because the dust was so great a danger factor you can’t see. If you’ve got the sun in your eyes, you couldn’t see to where you were to go,” he said.
Vehicles were kicking up rocks and the dust made breathing uncomfortable, he said.
Harrison said he had to take the road slowly in his dump truck and was constantly slowing down to wait for dust to clear. “And then there was another 20 cars coming at you,” he said.
Al Maxwell travelled to Ucluelet last week from Mayne Island to visit his son and is now looking at an extended trip. He and his wife had planned to leave Friday, but they intend to wait for the highway to reopen before they go.
“Maybe a day after it opens, because it’s just going to be crazy,” he said.
The local grocery store has been limiting the amount of dairy products it stocks on the shelves at a time, and there have been 30-litre limits at gas stations, Maxwell said. He’s watched several people load up on toilet paper.
Ucluelet Mayor Marilyn McEwen said she has heard concerns that companies that deliver pharmaceuticals don’t want to drive the detour, raising questions about the supply of medications.
In Port Alberni, Mayor Sharie Minions said the city woke up Thursday to the news that four gas stations were dry and supplies at grocery stores were dwindling as people started to make panic purchases.
There was a temporary shortage of some goods Wednesday before the detour was established, but the situation has stabilized, Minions said.
“I’m telling people over and over, supply chains are not broken. Supplies are coming into our community as they always do. Gas tanks are being filled. Grocery stores have been receiving their deliveries this morning,” she said.
The biggest risk to the supply chain now is panic buying and hoarding goods, Minions said, appealing to residents to shop as they normally would and have confidence that there is no interruption to deliveries.
The fire and highway closure are also causing tourism to take a hit on Vancouver Island’s popular west coast, leaving guests the choice to fly in or brave a rough forest service road.
Ucluelet Campground received 36 cancellations between Tuesday and Thursday, manager Kali Reit said.
“We would like to see them here but it is not an option and safety is foremost. We don’t want people travelling that forest service road if it can be avoided.”
No one knows how long the highway will be closed, but many are speculating it could be at least five days.
At Tofino’s renowned Wickanninish Inn, managing director Charles McDiarmid said the community has experienced highway closures in the past few years due to road construction near Kennedy Lake, but this situation is something new.
The hotel at Chesterman Beach is a little quieter than usual because of cancellations, he said. The fire “definitely put a crimp in the visitation for sure.” Guests are being alerted to the situation, provided with government updates, and informed about ways to get in and out of Tofino, such as flying or taking the forest road, although McDiarmid said the hotel is not recommending the detour to its guests.
Both Pacific Coastal Airlines and Harbour Air have put on extra flights.