Skip to content

Driver narrowly misses injury during Christmas Day rock slide on Highway 4

Tree damages pickup truck as it came down the slope, says Vancouver Island man

A Port Alberni man with a secret kept for 30 years was outed—but thankfully not hurt—when he was caught in a rock slide on Highway 4 near Cameron Bluffs on Christmas Day.

Every year for the past three decades, Larry Horvath has packed his flat-bottomed boat, fishing gear and a Santa suit and gone to Cameron Lake to fish. He has been dubbed the “Cameron Lake Santa” and aside from some family and close friends, he has been able to keep that secret.

Christmas Day 2023 started out like many others: raining, windy, but still a tolerable fishing day as far as Horvath was concerned. He took a rainbow-coloured umbrella with him to keep some of the rain off, but “Cameron Lake Santa” was out there fishing as usual.

Horvath had packed up to return home between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. and was driving back to Port Alberni on Highway 4 when suddenly, large rocks and trees came rushing down the slope at Cameron Bluffs. It was in the same area where a wildfire burned throughout the summer, forcing an extended closure of Highway 4 as crews dealt with the wildfire and then extensive repairs to the highway and then rock-scaling on the bluff.

“I came around Angel Rock and it’s slow around Angel Rock (30 km/h) because of the conditions,” he said. “As soon as you get out of the speed zone you can pick up speed again.” He was accelerating to resume speed when the slide happened.

“If I’d stepped on the throttle a little harder that tree would have gone through the middle of my cab,” he said.

A fir tree came down behind two boulders, which smashed through a cement barrier, stopping on the roadway in the eastbound lane. The tree hit the front of Horvath’s truck, taking out the front-end grill, denting the hood, knocking off a fender and shearing an emergency cable. Horvath was not injured.

“The front of my truck wasn’t even a year old,” he lamented.

Coincidentally, a storm on Christmas Day in 2022 prevented him from fishing on Cameron Lake. He was driving around town and was involved in a motor-vehicle incident that caused damage to the front of his pickup truck. The same truck that sustained damage in the slide last week.

Horvath, who is on a fixed income, wants the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) to pay the deductible on his ICBC claim. He says MOTI hasn’t done enough to prevent incidents like the rock slide.

Horvath said two months ago he was fishing on the lake early in the morning when he saw a light three-quarters of the way up the bluff. He had already seen maintenance trucks go by, visually examining the highway and roadside barriers. When the light continued to grow he realized it was a flare-up of the wildfire, so he called it in, but said nobody responded before he left the lake to go home.

On Christmas Day MOTI eventually closed the gates that were installed at the top of Alberni Summit (the “Hump”) and at Chalet Road, shutting off access to Highway 4 between Port Alberni and Whiskey Creek. People stuck on either side of the closure were able to go to emergency centres in Parksville Qualicum Beach and the Hospitality Inn in Port Alberni.

A geotechnical team was sent out at first light on Boxing Day to assess the area, and contractors were sent to clean up the slide debris. The highway re-opened around 2:30 p.m. Boxing Day.

There was some confusion over whether the alternate route through Lake Cowichan was closed on Christmas/ Boxing Day, as both DriveBC and the ACRD Emergency Program were reporting that there was no detour available. Many drivers attempted the alternate route anyway, some of them suffering from flat tires and others saying aside from a washout and a few small trees down, the route was manageable.

The alternate route through Lake Cowichan was set up last summer when Highway 4 was closed for a few weeks due to the Cameron Bluffs wildfire. A transportation ministry spokesperson said winter conditions on the alternate route on Christmas Day “made it inadvisable as a safe route during this specific temporary closure.”

The spokesperson said the overnight closure was expected to be short compared to the lengthy summer closure, and that more safety measures were in place during the summer. “To operate the detour route safely, even during summer conditions, significant safety measures were required to be set up. The ministry provided enhanced maintenance, staffed several information checkpoints to help drivers unfamiliar with the route, established piloted convoys…and provided other measures to keep people and goods moving safely during significant repairs to Highway 4.”

The checkpoints and convoys were removed once the highway reopened to two-way traffic earlier this year. Being the slide happened on Christmas Day, crews were not readily available.

Horvath said he spent an hour directing traffic around the slide area along with a couple of other people who stopped to help him. It took that long before an RCMP officer from Parksville arrived onsite, Horvath said.

He added that he is glad the gates are in place, but says they “need to have somebody working them.”

The transportation ministry says it has a plan in place for future closures this winter if necessary.

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
Read more