Highways 97, 99 and Highway 1 should have all been closed in the vicinity of Cache Creek, Clinton and Lillooet on the afternoon/evening of Aug. 11; at the very least for a few hours.
They saw more than a dozen mudslides and were all closed until the next day, if not multiple days anyways.
I asked the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure why they weren’t and got the following response:
The decision to close a highway has significant implications including access for emergency responders and local residents, pressure on alternate routes, economic impacts and direct impacts to travellers. This is not a decision the ministry takes lightly. In regards to Saturday’s storms, the ministry did close Highway 97 north of Cache Creek based on recent mudslide activity and an engineering assessment.
With a significant amount of the Province’s crown land being impacted by fires, it is not practical to close all highways in burn zones each time it rains. The ministry’s engineering and operations staff are working closely with FLNRO as the crown land operator, and will review the most recent mudslide activity to assess if, when and where further proactive closures and travel advisories will be considered going forward.
It is extremely difficult to predict where and when slides will come down and to close all highways downslope of wildfires every time it rains is not practical. We must balance the risks with the considerable consequences of each decision. Once a highway has closed, the ministry updates DriveBC (both through DriveBC.ca and @DriveBC on twitter) to ensure the travelling public is aware of the closure.
Quite frankly, this isn’t good enough. I would wholeheartedly agree that closing all highways downslope of wildfires every time it rains is not practical. However, this was far from “every time it rains.”
Environment Canada was predicting 30 to 40 mm of rain for Clinton. Prior to that, the greatest single-day precipitation between 1973 and 2014 was 27 mm and occurred on Aug. 22, 2004. The next highest single day precipitation records for the month of August, were all under 20 mm and most well below that. For further comparison, the total precipitation in 2017 for the months of May, June, July, August and September in Clinton was 30.5 mm (although the data is incomplete). When mudslides were triggered at the start of August, the highest level of precipitation recorded in Clinton was 6.1 mm. The rain on Aug. 11 was very far removed from an “every day it rains” situation. To further drive this point home, according to the Ashcroft RCMP Detachment Commander a 10 km stretch of Highway 99 had 17 mudslides all on its own. That doesn’t happen “every time it rains.”
It’s hard to take much comfort out of the rest of their statement as well. They state, “Once a highway has closed, the ministry updates DriveBC.” Yet, there is no tweet saying “the ministry did close Highway 97 north of Cache Creek based on recent mudslide activity and an engineering assessment.” The very first tweet mentioning Highway 97 on Aug. 11 (5:47 p.m.), states “CLOSED – #BCHwy97 at #ClintonBC due to mudslide. Assessment in progress, no detour available. Next update at 7 p.m.” Notably, the first tweets with reports of closure of Highway 1 and 99 were around 4:40 p.m.
Furthermore, I called the Ministry of Transportation weekend line. I received a call back at 4:27 p.m (to the best of my knowledge, this was shortly before any mudslides took place). After noting the excessive rainfall and the previous mudslides, I asked whether they would issue an advisory their representative said, “Not that I know of. I haven’t been linked in to anything regarding the Environment Canada forecast, but I’ll reach out to our folks in the region.” He then said that if they had any information to relay he would give me a call. I never received a call back.
Before the mudslides started happening, we also posted a story to our Facebook page about expected thunderstorms, which almost immediately received the comment, “Watch out for slides.” That’s not the typical response to, it’s going to rain today.
It’s kind of unbelievable that after a 2017 wildfire season with historically large fires during which nobody died (directly speaking) that a woman is missing because “it is not practical to close all highways in burn zones each time it rains,” on a day that a historically large amount of precipitation was predicted, not long after multiple mudslides were triggered with comparatively minor level of precipitation.
If Valerie Morris was my mother, wife or daughter, I would look very hard at what happened here. On a personal level, I don’t think I’ll look to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure when it comes to deciding whether a road is safe to drive or not.