The big dump

An in-depth account of the snowstorm that hit the Terrace area on Feb. 5 and 6

  • Sun Feb 15th, 2015 5:00pm
  • News

The curling rink parking lot was home to one of the more impressive storm piles following last weekend's storm.

For a while there, at the storm’s height, it felt like the area was inside a shaken paper weight.

Snow generated by warm moisture from the Hawaii region whipped horizontally like white sparks along curving windrows, and accumulated rapidly from Feb. 5 into Feb. 6, almost breaking records.

“Where to put it all, that’s the challenge,” said city corporate administrator Alisa Thompson in the aftermath of the blizzard.

All last week a parade of trucks dumped snow piles first in the parking lot outside the curling rink and then at the Sportsplex.

City crews were out around the clock, bolstered by the equipment of independent contractors.

“There were approximately 15 pieces of hired equipment at times from about a half dozen contractors,” said Thompson.

Both city officials and the RCMP told people to stay off the streets.

Main highways in the area were not closed but travel advisories were issued and flights were cancelled at the Northwest Regional Airport.

Rural roads were plugged and residents in the outlying areas were kept at home for several days.

Neighbours helped each other out, while in the city, those clearing snow were told that snow should not be shovelled out of driveways and onto streets.

Residents complained, but were told water runoff drains could be jammed and that sewers could be flooded with run-off.

“Please stay off the street,” the city tweeted. “All done shovelling yourself out? If so, go help your neighbour :)” said another.

“They just pulled together as a team. They stepped up to the plate. They are amazing.” said mayor Carol Leclerc of the city’s efforts.

To go outside during the storm, goggles and snowshoes were needed to make any sort of progress through the drifts.

Cars and trucks were routinely stuck in ditches along roads and highways.

Driving along, there were moments of complete whiteout where the road, the sides of the roads, everything in the visible horizon became a wall of white.

By the morning of Feb. 7, the storm had abated and the cleanup effort was underway.

Many people woke up to scenes like this on Saturday.

City officials late last week were still working out what would be considerable costs.

There is $525,800 in the 2015 provisional budget for winter road maintenance, plus another $87,000 for winter sidewalk maintenance.

“When we anticipate an extreme weather event, staffing levels are adjusted accordingly,” said a statement from the city.

“We focus our efforts on major routes during the event. This was not an ‘emergency’ in the sense that people’s lives were not in danger. The weather was extreme and we advised people to stay off the roads.”

Because of the seven-foot-high snow piles in the middle of streets, the city had all the crossing lights set to blinking red or yellow.

Not all drivers perhaps were aware of what it meant, that intersections had been converted to four-way stops.

Garbage collection was cancelled and at the height of the storm, both the Sportsplex and the aquatic centre were shut down as was the library. Even the Casino closed early on the Friday.

Leclerc looked at some of the positives that happened.

“It was the perfect storm. There was no school on Friday (Feb. 6), so the kids didn’t miss anything, and then it was a long weekend so the business community is not as busy on that Sunday/Monday, but Saturday was just like recuperating,” said Leclerc.

There was so much snow that even Shames Mountain was shut down on Feb. 7 because employees couldn’t get out of their driveways. Still, backcountry skiers who didn’t need the chair lift had a field day and devoured all the fresh powder on the steepest runs.

Skiing resumed Sunday, Feb. 8  with the mountain having recorded 115 centimetres of new snow.

The bandwidth of the Shames website servers maxed out as people wanted to see how much powder had fallen.

Skiers and snowboarders even commuted from Vancouver for the weekend to get a taste of northwestern fluff.

 

The scene at the airport Saturday morning. “I lost sleep trying to determine how to attack the snow with all these vehicles needing to be cleared,” said Kelly Gingles, who sent in the photo. “National car rentals had about 20 vehicles, and we finally finished clearing the last minivan Sunday at 7 p.m.”

Given the amount of snow which fell at the Northwest Regional Airport, fewer flights than might be expected were cancelled, says manager Carman Hendry.

WestJet and Air Canada flights coming in the evening of Feb. 5 were cancelled, meaning that the next morning’s flights out were also cancelled.

“The incoming flights Feb. 6 did get in and then leave but by the afternoon it was just too much,” said Hendry.

In all, five flights Feb. 6 were affected, he added.

With 7,500 feet of runway that’s 150 feet wide, airport snow clearing crews had all they could handle, Hendry continued.

“They could barely keep up to keep the runway open. They were down to 80 feet in width, the minimum width we could have,” he said.

In all, the airport had three plow trucks, two large snowblowers and two loaders on the runway constantly while one loader and one Bobcat tried to keep the aircraft area clear.

Hendry said the 11 staffers on duty did what they could, adding that three of them who went home on Feb. 6 couldn’t get out of their homes to return to work.

So much snow fell at the airport that operators were running out of room in which to store it.

A record?

Records were almost met for the area, with the airport registering 159 cm of snow from 4 p.m. Feb. 5 to 4 a.m. Feb. 7. Kitimat registered 168 cm and Onion Lake 157 cm.

Terrace came close to meeting its previous daily record extreme snowfall of 113.4 cm on Feb. 11, 1999. For Feb. 6, 2015, 109 cm fell.

Tahtsa Lake, near Tweedsmuir Park in B.C., registered the record, 145 cm on Feb. 11, 1999.

Lights out at the hospital

Mills Memorial Hospital was running on portable generators for a time during the Feb. 5-6 massive snowstorm when a main backup  generator failed after the facility’s normal power provided through BC Hydro went out.

“We have contingency plans for this sort of thing and in this case those plans worked,” said Northern Health Authority official Jonathon Dyck of how the hospital coped first with the loss of normal power followed by the failure of the main backup generator.

“No patient care was impacted,” he added.

With portable generators in use, the emphasis was on providing enough power to equipment and devices directly involved in patient care, Dyck said. Some hospital staffers, including nurses, wore headlamps to provide illumination so they could have their hands free while they worked, he continued.

The hospital’s main backup generator is regularly maintained and is tested once a week but it is still a piece of machinery, said Dyck.

“Like any piece of technology, it can go down. It’s like your car,” said Dyck. “It may work fine in the morning and you drive it but in the afternoon, it may not work.”

He added that hospital employees followed the protocol contained in the contingency plan and performed well during the power outage.

‘Epic’ event challenges crews

The company responsible for rural roads and provincial highways saw itself challenged with the heavy snowfall Feb. 5 and 6 but managed to keep up with the help of others.

“It was a big snowfall. It went as good as could be expected, a few challenges mostly with trees down and vehicles stuck on roads we couldn’t get our equipment around and power lines down and the like,” said Dan Beaulec, general manager for Nechako Northcoast, which is contracted by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to clear Thornhill roads, the highways and rural roads here.

“Once the power lines were out of the way and equipment could get around abandoned vehicles, we managed to get stuff clean.”

“It was described as an epic event,” he added, saying the last time that there was a similar amount of snowfall was in 1999.

He estimated that the cleanup cost for Feb. 6 to 8 was about $150,000, which included using sub-contracted people from the area and bringing in some equipment from Smithers: three snow cats and two large loaders with angled dozer blades.

And crews were working 12 to 14 hour shifts around the clock, Beaulec added.

Phone calls that came into the company weren’t to complain about their cleaning efforts but mostly inquiries about when their roads would be cleared so they could make plans to get out.

A few people called who had medical issues and Nechako expedited opening those roads, said Beaulec.

“Those kinds of cases, we made extra efforts to go get to [them] and get them access,” he said.

“The response was very good, very positive. Everyone was very understanding. It was a 50 or 100 year event and people’s patience was very much appreciated.”

The ministry decides whether to close the roads and Nechako had discussions with the highways district manager who decided against it, said Beaulec.

“Closing the roads would add the challenge of having traffic control out there in visibility that was almost zero so there was the risk of someone getting hit by traffic,” he said.

With no school that Friday and Monday being the BC Family Day holiday, it helped that there were fewer drivers on the road.

“It certainly was fortunate,” said Beaulec.

“In ‘99, we didn’t have that luxury and had to make arrangements with school bus operators.”

The one thing people should know is that calling the Nechako office number is not the best way to get hold of equipment crews – callers would leave messages on any extension but no one was there to hear them.

“A lot didn’t get to our storm desk where they needed to be,” said Beaulec.

“If they call the 1-800 number, the message centre, they could get to us and the supervisor in the field to make sure people’s concerns were at least recorded and received,” he said, adding that number is 1-800-665-5051 and is a 24-hour call service with a live operator who can dial into the radio systems and talk to supervisors and crews who are out on the roadways. That number is also in the phone book as a 24-hour emergency number, he added.

By the end of last week, crews were widening the streets and highways were bare and wet, he said.

“There’s still some slush and a few ribbons of compact snow to deal with and make room for if we get any more snow,” said Beaulec.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that winter was in a two day period and that’s the end.”

Beaulec said people understand that in conditions like the snowstorm the best thing is to hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s exactly what Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine Thornhill director Ted Ramsey and his wife did.

“It was really bad,” said Ramsey, referring to the storm. “But you know I knew, as I assume everyone else knows, the weather report said a storm was coming so we went down and stocked up, fueled the truck up and got extra gas for the snow blower.

“When they tell you it’s going to snow, stay home.”

He had a generator just in case the power went out, which it didn’t, and they were set up to look after themselves for 48 hours, which everyone should do, he added.

On Friday, Feb. 6 he did go down to the Northern Motor Inn – he lives in upper Thornhill – after he put chains on his truck tires and had no trouble getting down there and back again.

The sand trucks get the sand from the place on Old Lakelse Lake drive near the top of the hill so he knew that road would be good for driving, he said.

Ramsey did hear some comments from the public who think the regional district handles the cleaning of the roads but it’s the ministry of transportation who contracts it out.

“I think overall they did a good job,” he said, adding that he sees pickup trucks with snow blades on their front bumpers and thinks more should be used because of the good job they do.

“In my opinion, it’s a good idea but they’re not capitalizing on it enough.”

The street he lives on didn’t get plowed until Sunday night and a lot of side streets were still bad with many only having room to let traffic go thru one way but that’s part of the equation.

“It’s a whole whack of snow to get at once … We get lulled by no snow as all the winters have been pretty easy for the last 10 years. We tend to relax and we forget it can snow here.”