One of many avalanche deposits that hit Highway 16 during a closure for high avalanche hazard over recent weeks. (Skeena District Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure photo)

Most Highway 16 closures for avalanches in years after multiple dumps of snow

Highway 16 has had four closures between Terrace and Prince Rupert due to 35 mile avalanche area

Snow has wreaked havoc along Highway 16 this winter season, and it’s resulted in four extended closures between Prince Rupert and Terrace.

“We haven’t had this many closures since back in the 2011-2012 winter season,” said Darrell Gunn, the Skeena District manager for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

This winter, as of Feb. 15, traffic to and from the North Coast has been stalled for a total of 57 hours, mostly due to extended closures on Nov. 18, Jan. 30, Feb. 7 and Feb. 12. There have also been shorter closures with delays from 20 minutes to an hour, when transportation crews clear the walls of snow.

READ MORE: Highway 16 between Rupert and Terrace may close due to heavy snow

“We’ve experienced substantially more snow over this winter season and also the type of storm that we’re seeing, big dumps of snow that can cause instability that can lead to big avalanche hazards requiring us to close the road,” Gunn said.

Between Prince Rupert and Terrace there are more than 40 avalanche paths. The Skeena District has three full-time avalanche technicians, based in the Terrace office, who make the call when to close the road. They use physical observations, remote sensing information and field observations to determine the different risk levels for avalanches. Each path has a different characteristic that needs to be considered.

All the closures this year have been related to one section 60km west of Terrace, called 35 mile avalanche area.

“Due to the nature of the pass it actually has a lot lower threshold to reach a high avalanche hazard just due to the physical characteristics of the paths. That specific area, which includes four avalanche paths, are the primary causes for the closures,” Gunn said.

While a Highway 16 closure may mean a missed flight, or a rescheduled basketball game, the decision to close is for the public’s safety, Gunn said.

“We have to do preventative closures and during those closures there have been avalanches that have come down,” Gunn said.

When weather allows, the ministry of transportation uses helicopters for avalanche control. But due to the winter storms that continue to drop huge dumps of snow in the area helicopters are unable fly and it’s hard to keep up with the hazards.

Residents and city crews in Terrace were also struggling to keep up with snow clearing last week with more than 100 cm of snow on the ground after 56 cm fell in the area between Feb. 7-8.

In Prince Rupert, once the highway is closed, services and businesses are forced to be patient with Mother Nature. Gat Leedm Logistics had its freight delayed on Feb. 7, and Greyhound had to cancel a trip between Terrace and Prince Rupert on Feb. 13.

READ MORE: Highway 16 is closed on Saturday, Nov. 18, due to avalanche control

Northern Health also experienced some disruptions due to closures.

“On one occasion Northern Health did supply overnight accommodation for riders that required overnight support due to avalanche-related delays in service,” said Andrea Palmer, media relations for Northern Health, in an email.

Highway closures also affected the hospital when some staff couldn’t make their shift, and other staff members had to take on extra shifts to avoid disruptions in care.

Palmer included another example for Terrace. During the closures, orthopedic physicians on call have not been able to accept patients at Mills Memorial Hospital, but she said the orthopedic surgeon in Kitimat has been able to accept these patients.

CN Rail has also been dealing with a challenging winter season across its network, especially in Northern B.C.

“The most recent snowfall caused some delays but our mainlines are clear and we are making progress in our yards with switching and servicing trains as we return to our operating plan,” Kate Fenske, CN’s media relations for Western Canada, said in an email.

Fenske also sent a photo of tracks near Terrace to demonstrate just how high the snow has stacked on its path.

Environment Canada forecasts a brief reprieve of snow for early in the week, but the Kasiks area is expected to receive 5-10 cm on Friday. Winter isn’t finished with the snow just yet, so check DriveBC or or for closures and drive safe.

With files from Brittany Gervais 

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Delays on Highway 16 on Feb. 16 for avalanche control. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

CN Rail tracks near Terrace, B.C. in February, 2018. (CN Rail photo)

CN Rail tracks near Terrace, B.C. in February, 2018. (CN Rail photo)

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