Quesnel-Hydraulic Road slide threatening livelihoods of local ranchers, residents

Ranchers say cattle cannot get to sale if MOTI does not repair road before fall

By Melanie Law

Special to the Observer

Crews have been hard at work across the Cariboo for months, repairing roads washed out by wet weather and the heavy spring freshet.

Quesnel-Hydraulic Road, however, is one route that has not yet been addressed.

The road began sinking at around the 20.5km marker in April, residents said. But while some movement in the road is usual in spring, this year’s wet weather caused damage that was much worse.

On May 1-2, 2020, the hillside above Quesnel-Hydraulic Road slid down into the Quesnel River, completely obliterating the road. Approaching the area now, some three months after the initial slide, visitors are faced with a great heap of hillside, no road visible under or beyond the debris. The route has been completely wiped out.

The detour

For long-time residents who live past the slide area, the impact is devastating. They must now travel detour routes to get to Quesnel – routes that are not meant for everyday traffic.

The first route that opened up immediately after the slide was via Bastin Road/Nyland Lake Road, connecting with the 2700 and 500 forest service roads to emerge on the Barkerville Highway. Emcon Services North Cariboo division manager John Andrushko said his crews were called in to make the route passable. The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) later opened up a second detour route, via French Road to Highway 97 at Kersley.

“We were in there doing as much widening as we could,” said Andrushko. He explained that Emcon has been receiving instructions from MOTI to do piecework to maintain passable routes. “There was a lot of ditching that had to be done [to French Road]; base repairs; multiple culverts; a lot of danger trees that had to be cleared for safety for the public. We are still grading the 2700/500 roads and we are grading and maintaining to keep safe passage on the French Road,” he told the Observer.

Bernie McKinnon, a long-time resident, said the detour, while necessary, is not ideal. “What normally takes 35 minutes to get to town, well, the 500 road takes an hour. French Road takes an hour and fifteen, to an hour and 20 minutes,” he said.

Drastic impacts for cattle operations

For the ranching community south of the Quesnel-Hydraulic Road slide – the majority of residents – the road closure and detours may have dire effects.

The ranchers usually transport cattle for sale in late summer and fall, hauling them in 53-foot cattle liners driven by professional drivers. But residents say neither detour route is tenable for these trucks due to steep grades and sharp corners.

Lisa Larsen, who owns a cattle operation with her husband Wilfred, said it’s an animal welfare issue. A truck full of live animals simply can’t safely drive up and down steep hills. “The cattle pile up in the back of the cattle liner,” she explained. Animals would be injured or even die on the trip out to Highway 97.

Larsen’s husband’s family has been ranching in the area for generations, and she’s lived there for 35 years. She’s blunt when it comes to the impact of the road closure for her family. “It’s not only inconvenient. It’s truly jeopardizing our industry. Bottom line is that our cattle sale in the fall is 100 per cent of our year’s income,” she said.

The issues have been communicated to MOTI. In early August, the Ministry contracted a cattle liner to drive the French Road. His report back to the Ministry confirmed residents’ assertions. “Unfortunately, the driver indicated he felt the road would be too stressful for livestock because of its steep grade,” said a MOTI spokesperson via email.

If the cattle can’t be transported for sale, Larsen is concerned about how to house them for another year; they don’t produce enough feed to sustain the herd for that length of time, and it’s questionable whether residents will be able to haul in hay for feed, shavings for calving, fertilizer for crops, or even bulk fuel for machinery.

Larsen estimated there could be up to 4,000 head of cattle south of the slide – cattle that can’t get to sale, and can’t be properly taken care of in place if supply trucks can’t drive the route.

The holding pattern

Hydraulic Road residents are frustrated by the what they see as a lack of action and communication from MOTI. While there was a town hall conference call set up by Cariboo-North MLA Coralee Oakes between MOTI and locals mid-May, residents said late July there had been very little communication since.

On Aug. 7, 2020, residents of the road announced that MOTI has set a date for a community meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 11 in an outdoor area, near the bridge across Quesnel River on Nyland Lake Road. In an email to the Observer on Aug. 6, MOTI said geotechnical engineers plan to assess the site in the next two weeks, providing the slide continues to dry out. MOTI said additional community engagement will be planned once an assessment is complete. The meeting will be conducted virtually due to COVID-19.

The Ministry has been monitoring Quesnel-Hydraulic Road since the initial slide, according to the spokesperson. Work carried out by the geotechnical engineers has indicated the area is still in motion. “We recognize that residents want to see Quesnel-Hydraulic Road repaired; however, until the slide area dries out and stabilizes, it is not safe to undertake repairs.”

While residents admit they don’t want crews on the slide if it’s not safe, they feel the window of time to make decisions about hauling cattle, hay, and other necessities is closing.

Additional concerns

While cattle and supply transport is at the forefront of ranchers’ minds, there are other stress-inducing issues.

There’s the matter of children who live past the slide getting to school, come September. The school bus used to drive down Quesnel-Hydraulic as far as Bastin Road. Now, School District 28 secretary-treasurer Jennifer Woollends told the Observer that the handful of children living past the slide will have to be driven to a location to meet the school bus. But Woollends said the School District will pay affected parents a transportation supplement due to the changes. (The same applied in June 2020, when some students returned to school after the initial COVID-19 shutdown.)

And a pressing concern for many residents in their access to emergency care. Many of the people living past the slide are over 50, said Garda Cameron. Some have ongoing medical issues. They are worried about access to help, as well as to medical professionals for their animals, should they need it. “Medical is a huge issue,” said Garda.

Garda grew up in the area, and now lives just north of the slide on Quesnel-Hydraulic Road. Her parents, Ken and Ginger Cameron, have owned a cow/calf operation south of the slide for 57 years.

For the Camerons, the slide has caused additional headaches, in that they usually transport hay or equipment between properties that are cut off by the slide. Now, machinery and feed must travel the long way around. There are a few other families who face the same issue, making the day-to-day running of their land and livestock extremely difficult. The detour route can take up to three hours, round trip.

And just like the Larsens, the Camerons are concerned about how they will transport calves to market. “Unless we just trailer them 20 at a time…. We have to do something. We don’t have enough hay to feed them all winter,” said Garda.

Winter conditions

The Ministry’s spokesperson said on July 30, 2020 that MOTI has hired a project manager to oversee improvements to French Road, which is now the designated detour route. “As slide movement has not stopped, we will be heightening our efforts on improving the condition of French Road,” said the spokesperson.

Larsen has been traveling French Road daily since May to reach her business downtown Quesnel. She said the wear and tear to her vehicle has been significant in the past three months. “I can’t get over 30km per hour going over the detours, so it’s not like I drive like a bat out of hell. It’s just the amount of holes in the road,” she said. Residents say French Road – which is at a high elevation – will begin to see snow fly by mid-October. Conditions will then get considerably worse.

To date, MOTI has contracted Emcon Services to keep the detour routes passable. Emcon’s Andrushko said his crews are maintaining the routes as best they can until they hear more. He estimated between $350,000 to $400,000 has been spent on French Road so far. But he noted that more must be done to keep the road safe come winter.

“Currently the French Road is not wide enough. They are logging on it right now, plus you’ve got the public on there. Then when winter comes you have to have a plow truck. Right now, a logging truck and a plow truck couldn’t pass in lots of areas. If the Hydraulic Road is not being opened this year, there are a lot of upgrades that need to be done on the French Road through the forestry section to make it safe for everybody.”

Andrushko doesn’t know yet whether the Ministry will contract Emcon for the work, or whether the project manager will go about the work a different way. He said he’s in a holding pattern, waiting for MOTI to make a decision.

Road to nowhere

In the meantime, residents have been seeking help via various routes, hoping for answers and support. Local politicians including Cariboo Regional District Area A Director Mary Sjostrom and Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes have been in regular contact.

On July 22, MLA Oakes presented a petition signed by 72 affected constituents to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. The petition urges the Province to take immediate steps to re-open Quesnel-Hydraulic Road.

MLA Coralee Oakes presents the petition

So far the plea is not answered.

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