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West Fraser Road closed until at least 2020, says Ministry of Transportation

Residents south of washout say logging road detour to Quesnel not a tenable temporary solution
A photo showing damage to West Fraser Road at Deep Creek Hill, taken May 5, 2018. Bo Mills photo

As wildfires continue to take a toll across the province, locals near Quesnel are still dealing with the aftermath of this spring’s flood waters.

Several stretches of West Fraser Road at and near the Narcosli Bridge washed out in April and May 2018, due to high water levels from the spring freshet. Narcosli Creek eroded five sections of the road approximately 17 kilometres south of Quesnel.

READ MORE: West Fraser Road washed out near Roddie Road

West Fraser Road has been closed since then, and the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) notified ?Esdilagh First Nation (Alexandria) in a letter dated July 26, 2018, that construction on West Fraser Road won’t begin until summer 2020.

“Design options are planned to be available fall 2018. Detailed design planned to be completed spring/summer 2019. Project tender is anticipated to occur in late fall 2019 or early 2020, with construction work to commence summer 2020,” reads the letter.

Damage due to flood

On its West Fraser Road Flood Recovery webpage, MOTI describes the extent of the damage, with five separate points within a three kilometre section of road washed out.

A MOTI representative told the Observer via email that “geotechnical and hydrological assessments have been ongoing as the Ministry investigates options to re-establish regular service.”

But locals say the road has washed out or been compromised many years in the springtime, and so, in one community members’ words, repairs are “past due.”

“This road has been doing that since I worked at West Fraser, so we are talking 10 years ago,” said Daryl Johnny, a community representative from ?Esdilagh.

?Esdilagh councillor Chad Stump continued: “Every year they throw some dirt on, pack it down… it’s not to the fault of the guys who are trying to mend it. It comes from the top down. Now the road is gone. So the guys who are making the decisions have to make a decision. They have to get involved, and it’s unfortunately at the cost of time and safety for us.”

A representative from MOTI confirmed that the area has been an ongoing concern, saying via email that in the past five years, the Ministry has spent more than $1.14 million on West Fraser Road.

“Most of this money was spent on the Deep Creek Hill area after a significant slide occurred [in the 2015/16 fiscal year], in order to rebuild the road and do geotechnical studies for planning long-term solutions,” said the email.

Part of the 2018 slide was in this same location.

The Ministry said it will be seeking feedback from users of West Fraser Road this fall on the route design options they come up with. Regardless, shovels won’t be in the ground until summer 2020 at the earliest, with no indication how long the project might take to complete.

The Ministry said cost estimates for the current washout will be made once potential replacement options are identified.

On detour

In the meantime, residents of communities south of the washouts – including ?Esdilagh First Nation and Buckridge – are on detour to and from Quesnel, forced to drive Garner Road, a winding forest service road, to reach the city where they work, attend school and shop. The route adds around 20 minutes to most residents’ one-way journey.

Teresa Smith, a resident of Buckridge and a Quesnel businesswoman, has gathered information on the affected community. She said there are around 224 people in the area, 52 of which are children under age 18. This includes residents of ?Esdilagh.

According to Smith, 58 households have full-time jobs in Quesnel, and some of these have three vehicles driving the road regularly, including both adults and adult children at the homes.

MOTI told the Observer via email that safety improvements have been made to the detour route, including base stabilization to reduce dust; decreasing the speed limit in certain areas; removal of roadside bushes along the route to increase sight lines; regular inspections being done on commercial vehicles; and increased signage, as well as having the RCMP travel the route at least once a week.

But residents of Buckridge and ?Esdilagh’s community say the road still feels very unsafe as a regular route.

“There are some big holes and they are so slow on their grading that a couple of weeks ago, one of our community members was going in to the Farmers’ Market with all their produce, and was trying to avoid one of these great holes, and they went off the road,” said Dave Wall, who is the president of the Buckridge Community Association.

“So it doesn’t sound to me like they’re all that concerned about safety when people have to swerve all over the road to miss the problems that are there. There are a number of places where something should be done.”

Coun. Stump acknowledged the changes made by MOTI to reduce dust and increase visibility, but agreed with Wall.

“The only positive I’ve heard [lately] was that they would like to take a drive with us and decide what corners might need to be worked on and what areas are of concern to us. It’s a good gesture, but the whole road is a mess,” he explained.

There is also the concern of more wear and tear on vehicles that travel this route rather than West Fraser Road. While Wall acknowledges that’s not really something the Ministry can do much about, he knows it’s a factor for residents.

“There should be a grader on that road all the time. Once he gets to one end, he turns around and starts over. It would take a week to grade the whole thing, it’s over 40 clicks,” he said.

“The bottom line is it shouldn’t be a public road… It’s a logger’s road,” asserted Johnny.

Although the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) said via email that they do not track the number of logging vehicles that travel Garner Road, but they did point out that these particular roads provided access to large volumes of timber as a result of the pine beetle outbreak in the area.

“The salvage of that wood is now mostly complete and there are now lower volumes of traffic in that particular area. There has also been a recent reduction in the annual allowable cut in the Quesnel Timber Supply Area to account for the fact that salvage harvesting is on a decline. This will also lead to less industry traffic in general,” said the FLNRORD representative in an email.

The email also said that the time of year as well as the forest licensee’s harvesting plans will impact how much traffic is on a logging road at any given time.

“A cutting permit is typically valid for four years and harvesting could happen any time within a four-year period based on the operational plans and needs of the licensees,” read the email.

READ MORE: MLA Coralee Oakes provides an update on West Fraser Road washout

School bus route

With School District #28 buses gearing up to travel the route next week, around 24 students will be boarding the bus, which leaves Marguerite Ferry Road at 6:20 a.m. Due to the road closure, some children will be on the bus 30 minutes longer than when the road was open.

“Now they are sitting on a bus for three hours [total] a day. It’s stressful,” commented Johnny.

SD28 superintendent of schools Sue-Ellen Miller said the district has contacted MOTI to arrange a meeting to do additional planning regarding the bus route, but so far a meeting has not taken place. A representative from MOTI said arrangements are being made to discuss the school district’s concerns.

School District #28’s 2018/19 session begins next Wednesday, Sept. 5.

Winter driving

As the seasons change to fall, one thing on most community members’ minds is how drivers will fare on the logging road once the snow flies.

“We are deathly scared of snow coming, for sure. What are our kids going to do? What are we going to do? I told the [MOTI] manager here, I wouldn’t want to be the one to phone down to Victoria to tell them that there was a horrific accident or a tragedy out on that back road,” said Stump.

Johnny said the idea of driving the road in winter is nerve wracking.

“It’s so windy. There are so many S turns and blind corners and if you have a logging truck coming…” he trailed off, then added: “With the snowbanks coming, the road is going to narrow another few feet.”

Heading south

Teresa Smith’s research suggests that some residents of the area are now choosing to do their business in Williams Lake, driving south instead of via the detour route north to Quesnel.

According to her rough calculations after speaking to locals in the area, an average of $800 per month in basic expenses – groceries, fuel, etc – is being spent in Williams Lake rather than Quesnel since the washout.

“[That doesn’t include] larger purchases of seed, grain, fencing supplies and other ranching expenses that ranchers are finding easier to acquire from Williams Lake,” said Smith in an email.

She, and some of her neighbours, believe driving conditions are better to Williams Lake, as is cell phone service, in case of an incident on the road.

Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson acknowledged that the washout may be having a commercial impact in town.

“We are absolutely conscious at the City that from a commercial activity perspective, people are impacted with having to reroute to Williams Lake,” he said.

“And from an emergency management perspective, it’s all-around not good and it’s not sustainable both socially and economically for us to continue with the route they have now. And it’s only going to get worse in the winter,” he commented.

But ?Esdilagh’s Johnny said the idea of travelling to Williams Lake to do business is not going to fly with the local community.

“I don’t know how the neighbours feel, but as a community, we are part of this town. We have all our business in town, we have our office in town, Why should I have to go to a different town and start over when it’s taken all our lives to get to where we are?”

On top of that, Coun. Stump said many ?Esdilagh members are afraid the hillside near Soda Creek, which burned in the 2017 wildfires, may one day succumb to mudslide.

”That hillside is not stable. It’s given out before and they fixed it and it narrowed… I hear about all the slides and mudslides and roads giving out [down south]… what’s saying that can’t happen on that side? It’s all burnt.”

Waiting for 2020

Local residents are clearly frustrated by the idea that West Fraser Road will remain closed until at least 2020.

“Not only do we pay our fair share to government, but the owners up and down that road – $3.9, $4 million-dollar ranches – pay tax dollars for that road. And now what? We are shifted to a side road,” said Stump.

“I don’t think 2020 is acceptable. Not for our people in ?Esdilagh. … It needs to be dealt with before then. We can’t have our kids facing death every day up and down that back road.”

Stump said community members had tabled ideas including a bridge across the Fraser River or a bridge across the slide area at a July meeting with the Ministry of Transportation, as well as the idea of re-opening the Marguerite Ferry in the summer, but Ministry representatives remain steadfast that geotechnical, hydrological, environmental and archaeological assessments must be done before any work can take place.

If that’s the case, Mayor Simpson said once the assessments have been done, the City and Regional District want to get the practicalities of the project –including a timeline and funding – locked down.

“2020 may be the fastest opportunity for them to get in to repair it. We want to know, if that’s the case, then is it going to get locked down, is it a priority project, are they going to do it as quickly as they can and, when the come up with a game plan, is it going to be funded? We don’t want any delay between coming up with a game plan and then money assigned to fund it.”

Mayor Simpson said that the City of Quesnel has added the West Fraser Road washout as a specific topic item at the upcoming Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) meetings with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in September.

“We have had significant discussions with the Cariboo Regional District as well, and the MLA [Coralee Oakes] has met with us, and she is on it. Part of what we need to understand is the geotechinical issues associated with the slide above the bridge. There is a significant portion of the road that is completely gone. We don’t want to be presumptive of some of the geotechinical work that needs to be done,” said Simpson.

Simpson said the City also wants to hear MOTI’s maintenance strategies for the detour route, and if there are any ideas to make the passage to Quesnel safer or shorter.

MOTI said it will meet with West Fraser Road residents in the fall to go over concept design options, offering locals input on how the project will move forward.

Until then, residents will endure longer commute times to Quesnel, as well as potentially dangerous driving conditions.

“The movers and shakers of the world gotta get this done,” said Johnny.

“[West Fraser] is a main road, there’s the people there to prove it. It’s past due if you ask me.”

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The slide area on the West Fraser Road at Deep Creek. Photo courtesy of Emcon Services The slide area on the West Fraser Road at Quesnel’s Deep Creek. Photo courtesy of Emcon Services