BC's highways are mostly fixed, but still vulnerable to storms
BC's transportation networks failed its 2021 test. Will it pass the next one?
Two years ago, British Columbia was split asunder by massive landslides that left communities isolated, travellers stranded, and an economy in limbo.
That year’s storms laid bare the fragility of the region and the susceptibility of its infrastructure and neighbourhoods to a climate disaster.
Today, the region is more resilient but hardly stormproof. This month, moderate storms have forced closures of highways north, west, and east of Hope.
As the second anniversary of 2021’s storms and landslides arrives, we’re looking at whether the region’s communities are better prepared, and what still must be done to better protect its homes, neighbourhoods, and highways.
Today, Tyler writes about the transportation routes decimated in 2021, the work done to rebuild them, and how many highways are still vulnerable. He also has new information from a press conference held Wednesday by Transportation Minister Rob Fleming.
Tomorrow, we’ll focus on places like Clayburn Village, Hope, Kent and Hatzic. Sign up to our free daily newsletter to get that story in your inbox.
The storms of 2021 shattered southern British Columbia’s transportation network into pieces.
The damage in the days following the first atmospheric river was stunning and almost inconceivable.
The task just to restore Highway 1 and 5 to even temporary and limited use was monumental. The scale of the job was such that when the short-term repairs were completed in a matter of months, the work was hailed for its speed.
The storm also forced a reckoning like few others in modern Canadian history. In a matter of days, water swept aside transportation routes, bridges, and highways that appeared to be the embodiment of 21st Century civilization. The water upended lives, businesses, and communities built upon the assumption that a truck or train could travel two hundred kilometres in a matter of hours. It revealed that the ties that bind our province could be fractured at once suddenly and without warning. And it forced a province to reckon with not only what the last storm had wrought, but what the next one may bring.
A quick overview of the damage:
Highway 11 between Abbotsford and Mission: buckled by high water
Highway 7 between Mission and Hope: blocked by landslides in numerous places
Highway 5 (Coquihalla): severed in more than a dozen places
Highway 1 in the Fraser Canyon at Jackass Mountain: severed by a massive landslide that created an enormous new gully
Highway 1 west of Bridal Falls: inundated by mud and rocks
Highway 3: closed due to washouts and floods
Rail lines in the Fraser Valley: buried by mud
Rail corridors in the Fraser Canyon: demolished by debris and water
The geographic scope of the damage underscores the severity of the storm, and the challenges in mitigating the consequences of future atmospheric rivers.
The variety and breadth of communities and transportation arteries impacted in 2021 reveal the impossible task of trying to disaster-proof hundreds of kilometres of highway across southwestern British Columbia.
The highways share valley bottoms with large rivers inclined to move and shift as time passes and sediment patterns change. When the highways climb and twist up mountains, they cross gulleys carved by storms, avalanches, and landslides, and pass beneath steep mountain faces, some scarred by wildfires, others which still bear the traces of centuries of erosion.
Recurring problems can be addressed only for new issues to pop up nearby.
And yet, there are ways to work with, rather against, the weather that were not available to engineers when BC’s main highways were built decades ago.
In this story, we’re going to take a look at what has been done to fix highways damaged in 2021, and what, if anything, has been or needs to be done to safeguard them the next time around.
The 2021 atmospheric river comprehensively destroyed BC’s transportation corridors, stranding people across the province—including tens of thousands in the Fraser Valley.
All four highways connecting the Lower Mainland to the interior of the province were closed at one point. Highway 1 in the Fraser Canyon and the Coquihalla experienced major damage that required both to be closed for more than a month.
But within the Fraser Valley too, the storm isolated communities and stranded thousands. Hope was isolated and cut off from Chilliwack and Agassiz. Chilliwack residents couldn’t get east or west. The same was true for those in Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs. Even a stretch of highway between Abbotsford and Mission was affected, creating major traffic impacts. And even when some highways did open, restrictions were imposed to try (with limited effect) to give priority to essential travel.
Two years later, many highway troublespots have been repaired. But not all. Traffic on Highway 1 in the Fraser Canyon must still take turns crossing a one-lane bridge. And recent storms show vulnerabilities remain on other major arteries.
The new Bottletop Bridge on the Coquihalla features much larger spans able to accommodate more water during high-water events. 📷 Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure
Flooding damaged more than 20 different sites along the highway, wiping out seven different bridges. The province prioritized reconstruction of the Coquihalla Highway between Hope and Merritt. Temporary repairs were completed within months, and permanent construction has now been completed, leaving BC’s most important artery with new bridges that highway officials say have been rebuilt to better withstand future flood events.
The temporary rebuilding of the Coquihalla showed the government could respond quickly to reopen a devastated transportation artery. That response was not only necessary at the time, but it created a template for how the province can co-ordinate future emergency work, should it be necessary.
But the 2021 atmospheric river also illustrates the capacity of a storm-fed Coquihalla River to devastate a highway vital for the movement of goods across the country.
The Coquihalla should be more resilient and able to withstand heavy rain events, officials said at a press conference Wednesday. The new bridges are longer and will allow more water to pass under them during high-water events. The piles on which the bridges sit are also larger and stronger, and culvert and drainage issues have also been addressed at places that showed weakness in 2021.
That work will be needed and will likely be tested in the future.
Crews have also reseeded river banks and areas along highways with trees, plants and shrubs. It’s hoped that vegetation will help with erosion control while also aiding fish populations.
Rivers are constantly shifting and changing in unpredictable ways, and other weaknesses may not be evident until a future storm threatens BC’s most important highway.
Hope officials heard last year that the Coquihalla River reached heights expected of a one-in-30-year event. Such an event is, in disaster terms, relatively common. An even bigger storm could test new sections of a highway we now know wasn’t built to stand up to the biggest atmospheric rivers.
Highway 1 (Fraser Canyon)
Damage on Highway 1 in the Fraser Canyon and lower Thompson Valley may have been confined to fewer spots than the Coquihalla—but the scale of the damage was as great as that seen anywhere in the province.
Floodwaters wiped away three significant stretches of highway east of Lytton plus a vital rail crossing. South of the village, a creek in a minor ravine became a torrent of water and debris that blew a massive hole in a large stretch of highway on Jackass Mountain, midway between Lytton and Boston Bar. The episode rebirthed a gully that had been paved over more than 50 years ago.
Since 2021, Highway 1 repairs have played second-fiddle to those on the Coquihalla, with the focus on getting the route passable by motorists. Most of the highway has finally returned back to its full capacity, but drivers must still take turns going over Jackass Mountain.
An 80-metre-long temporary one-lane bridge was erected in the months following the 2021 storm. That bridge, coupled with legions of traffic workers, has ferried alternating traffic across a four-kilometre stretch of highway ever since. The resulting delays have added between 20 and 30 minutes of travel time to the route.
This summer, crews finally began working on a permanent fix that will see a large new bridge added to restore three lanes of traffic in each direction. On Wednesday, Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said construction could enable two lanes of traffic on the stretch of road “in the new year.”
The 2021 atmospheric river could have done far more damage in the canyon.
Satellite imagery shows how the greenery surrounding many Boston Bar-area creeks was wiped away as small watercourses turned into large rivers. Those mudslides didn’t create the damage seen at Jackass Mountain, but like on the Coquihalla, the devastation that was wrought suggests the destructive force that some creeks can carry under the right circumstances.
Throughout the canyon, dozens of small creeks and rivers flow underneath Highway 1 through decades-old culverts. The highway was built more than 50 years ago and the Jackass Mountain damage shows how the route’s 1960-era drainage systems may not stand up to increasingly frequent and large atmospheric river events. The legacy of the Kookipi Creek wildfire could also further test the highway in the future.
Last weekend, Highway 1 was closed between Boston Bar and Lytton in the Fraser Canyon as a pre-emptive measure because of concerns over slope stability near Jackass Mountain and the area affected by that fire.
Improvements to shore up the route have been limited, but it hasn’t gone entirely without work. A brand new bridge in Yale provides better drainage and undoubtedly more resilience than the old structure it replaced.
But the 2021 storm shows the potential storms have to reshape the landscape given the right conditions.
Highway 1 (Hope to Abbotsford)
As storms go, the one that hit the Fraser Valley earlier this month, on Nov. 4, 2023, was pretty tame. It was certainly less severe than the one that hit the region two years earlier. And yet, just past midnight, officials closed down Highway 1 between Hope and Bridal Falls due to flooding.
Traffic on the key road remained halted for around 11 hours.
On its own, the event would be relatively unremarkable—though any event that blocks the busiest highway in the province has a very real impact. But in the context of recent events, it’s a sign of just how vulnerable the route is to extreme—and not even all that extreme—weather.
In 2021, the highway between Chilliwack and Hope was closed for about a week due to flooding and a mudslide that poured water and debris onto the key route. Eventually the highway was cleared, but events like the storm two weeks ago shows how vulnerable the highway is to water and debris flowing off the slopes of the towering mountains to the south.
When The Current asked the province for details on work being done to improve resiliency on the highway, officials cited planning work to address the highway’s vulnerabilities between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, but didn’t mention the closure-prone section of highway further west. Its online communications also don’t highlight any work done to improve the resiliency of the Hope-to-Chilliwack stretch.
Meanwhile, on Sumas Prairie, where the highway was closed for weeks in 2021, the road is a component in the same complex planning and recovery efforts that will protect—or not—much of the rest of the prairie in the years to come. The province says it intends to floodproof the highway, but that the work will take place in combination with other flood resiliency work, discussions about which are still in their infancy.
Most of southwestern BC’s highways were closed during the 2021 atmospheric river, but they weren’t all shut down at the same time. When Highway 1 was initially blocked to the west of Hope, travelers turned to Highway 7, which was still open at the time.
But many travellers never made it to their destinations. Instead, a series of landslides swept down the hillsides and onto the road. One landslide, near Ruby Creek, hit a line of cars that had been stalled by a previous slide. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.
And the highway itself escaped major damage and was one of the first to re-open.
With Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford closed for weeks, the highway became an essential link between the Fraser Valley’s communities. But even though only essential travel was permitted, it proved incapable of handling huge numbers of motorists. Twice the road was closed after substantial accidents.
Two years later, the stretch damaged in 2021 has been repaired, but little else has been visibly done to protect the highway from future landslides or prepare it for heavier traffic flows. When The Current asked the Ministry of Transportation for information on highway improvements undertaken since the atmospheric river, the reply from ministry staff did not mention Highway 7.
The ministry’s website does outline work done on the slide area. It also cites long-term erosion work at Sterling Road. However, that site involves addressing gradual erosion within Nicomen Slough in close proximity to the highway; it doesn’t address an existing landslide risk. (Fleming did say Wednesday that contractors and engineers continue to survey highways around the province to determine where work is needed to reduce vulnerabilities.)
The slide—and the mudflows that have affected Highway 1 on the opposite side of the Fraser—illustrate the hidden landslide risks that may threaten many highways in the Fraser Canyon and the Fraser Valley.
Many of the highways sit at the base of steep mountains with slopes that can be weakened during heavy rain events. The slides are the result of natural processes, though in some areas, logging, forestry roads, and wildfires aggravate the slide risk.
Two years after the 2021 atmospheric rivers, much of the work has been on fixing the damage from that event. But there’s little public sign that extensive work has been done to identify weak points that could be subject to landslides during the next major storm.
Highway 3 was one of the first routes closed during the 2021 storm due to mudslides east of Hope and near Princeton.
The highway escaped major damage and re-opened about a week after the storm. In the following month, the Hope-Princeton—in tandem with Highway 7—functioned as a lifeline for the Lower Mainland, carrying huge numbers of trucks, buses, and other essential vehicles between the BC Interior and the rest of Canada and the Lower Mainland.
But with its high mountain passes, the highway proved difficult to navigate for the large numbers of vehicles forced to use it in the wake of the 2021 storms. Heavy snow made the route impassable at times, and, like Highway 7, the road also suffered from delays caused by collisions.
While it rode out the 2021 storm relatively well, the highway has been closed for both fires and rockslides in the years since. Earlier this month, huge boulders rolled off a mountainside near Keremeos and onto the highway, forcing its closure. Such rock falls are reportedly common in the area.
The temporary solution
Like on Sumas Prairie, perhaps the most consequential long-term change over the last two years—beyond just rebuilding the stuff that broke in 2021—has been a change in how BC handles the danger posed by forecasted storms.
The 2021 storm did not come out of nowhere. It was forecast to dump immense amounts of rain on southwestern BC—more so than your typical atmospheric river. Proactive highway closures were not unheard of before the 2021 storm but were “very rare” and usually reserved for extreme snowfall events or to allow for avalanche control. When it came to potential landslides and debris flows risks, they were almost unheard of.
In 2021, provincial authorities only began to act after mud and water and debris actually started washing away highways and making them impassable. Highways 5 and 1 were closed first, sending drivers hoping to get home down unfamiliar highways that remained open. When landslides blocked traffic on those routes too, many motorists subsequently became sitting ducks for secondary slide events.
Five people were killed in such a slide on Highway 99 between Lillooet and Pemberton.
Since the first storm, highway officials have been quicker to proactively close highways before significant rainfall events. Many, but not all, such recent closures have taken place near areas affected by wildfires, like that last year in the Fraser Valley.
Before 2021, weather-related dangers were hardly novel. Debris flows were a known threat on BC’s highways, and landslides had killed motorists before. But that storm’s cavalcade of debris flows revealed how landslides caused by extremely heavy rain have the potential to create mass casualty events on routes that might not usually see all that much traffic.
An initial slide that blocks a highway can leave long lines of cars prone and vulnerable at the bottom of saturated mountainsides. If a second slide takes place in close proximity to the first, the likelihood that it hits multiple cars is also incredibly high.
Officials seem to have learned that closing a highway only after the first landslide can be too late.
But there’s a fine line: Overly common highway closures can frustrate drivers and create problems for the thousands of truckers and companies that need to transport food, equipment, and other items across the province.
And while pre-emptive closures can save lives, they can’t insulate the province against the societal and economic consequences that arise when vital transportation connections are severed.
Many of BC’s highways are squeezed between mountains and rivers and must frequently cross small gullies that funnel debris flows downhill. 📷 BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure
The big problem
All BC’s highways suffer from a similar challenge: that of being a highway in one of the most mountainous places on the surface of the Earth.
The 2021 storm not only demonstrated the dangers that lurk above highways, they prominently highlighted the fragility of the transportation ties that link BC.
Because of its mountains, BC is dependent on just a few highways—plus two rail lines in close proximity to those routes—to move people and essential goods between its southwestern cities and the rest of the country. Not only is each individual highway vulnerable, but weather patterns and their proximity to one another mean that a storm that endangers one route can compromise all four arteries.
There’s no way to fully insulate BC’s highways from snow, ice, rain, and rivers. That is especially true as extreme storms become more common due to climate change, as warming temperatures change precipitation patterns, and as wildfires reduce the ability of the landscape to soak up water.
But it’s still possible to create more resilient highways that are less susceptible to those forces. The challenge, in many cases, is not figuring out what needs done, but determining which routes and vulnerabilities to prioritize—and actually doing the work everybody agrees is important.
Provincial Highways Minister Rob Fleming told The Current last year that the focus is on rebuilding routes to be more resilient, and identifying infrastructure that needs to be upgraded.
“The conversation we’ve had with the federal government… is that we begin to shift some of the resources towards proactive upgrading and repair,” he said. “In some cases, that means larger culvert systems that can handle more water from a mass precipitation event. In some cases, it means accelerating the replacement of older bridges that we know need replacement.”
Fleming said that the provincial and federal governments both recognize the need to create more resilient transportation networks.
But whether or not that amounts to actual action remains to be seen. Upgrading highway infrastructure will cost untold billions of dollars at a time when the federal government is trying to cut its deficit and facing continuing demands for funding on issues ranging from the military to health care.
The province could act independently, but historically prefers to wait until it can get the feds onside to eat a chunk of the cost of large infrastructure projects.
Highway 5 has already been largely rebuilt, and officials can point to its increased resilience. But it’s unclear how quickly the provincial and federal governments will take action to better protect secondary highways that are relied on both for everyday travel, and as backup routes if and when the Coquihalla is closed.