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This B.C. family got creative after a rockslide got in the way of their Hawaii trip

"They were quite panicked because they stood to lose quite a bit of money if they weren’t able to make their flight."
The damage from a rockslide on Highway 4 between Port Alberni and Tofino and Ucluelet is seen on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Photograph By Ministry of Transportation

On Friday morning, the Blake family from Tofino needed to get to Nanaimo to make an airline connection for a trip to Hawaii, but Highway 4 was closed.

“They were quite panicked because they stood to lose quite a bit of money if they weren’t able to make their flight,” said Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne.

After a “little bit of creative thinking,” she said, “Jesse Blake put the family boat in at the Kennedy Lake Provincial Park boat launch.”

The launch is just west of the construction zone where rockfall from blasting overnight Wednesday significantly damaged the roadway and closed the highway, which links Tofino and Ucluelet to the rest of the Island.

The Blakes boated across to the east side of the lake Friday morning and were met by Alberni Island Shuttle, which took them to the Nanaimo Airport for their 1:30 p.m. flight.

Wednesday night’s blast was part of the $38.1-million Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement Project, which will make a 1.5-kilometre section of road on the hill wider and straighter. An unexpectedly large volume of rock from the blasting fell on rain-saturated ground, causing a portion of the shoulder and travelling surface to slough away, the Transportation Ministry said.

While the section of highway remains closed, “essential traffic” was allowed through on Friday from noon to 8 p.m. on a single-lane-alternating basis. The opening was intended for those with important appointments or vacationers trying to get to and from the Tofino/Ucluelet area, the ministry said.

Drivers were not asked why they were travelling, but only passenger vehicles and light pickup trucks were allowed to take advantage of the temporary access.

The highway at Kennedy Hill closed at 8 p.m. Friday for overnight foundation work to prepare for a weekend bridge installation. When the bridge is in place, the highway will be reopened to single-lane alternating traffic, allowing commercial vehicles, RVs and other large vehicles to move through the corridor.

There will be a limited opening of the highway on Saturday between 8 a.m. and noon for passenger vehicles and light pickups only before the bridge is installed. During Saturday’s opening, vehicles will be screened at the Tofino/Ucluelet junction and at Sproat Lake. Larger vehicles will be turned around. Heavy loads, commercial trucks and vehicles with campers or towing trailers will not be allowed through.

At noon, work will begin on placing a prefabricated 20-metre single lane bridge at the site. A specialized bridge crew will be working day and night to complete the installation, said an update by the ministry.

“Work will be challenging as the bridge is being placed in a narrow space between the rock bluff and Kennedy Lake,” said the update.

The goal is to have Highway 4 reopened to single-lane alternating traffic to regular and commercial vehicles on Sunday afternoon. Updates on the estimated closure will continue to be posted to DriveBC.

Two emergency support hubs are available in Pacific Rim National Park for people affected by the closure. Combers Beach parking lot is available for semi-trailer trucks and Green Point Campground overflow is available for RVs and campers.

About 6,000 people live in the Tofino/Ucluelet area, and Osborne said Friday her town was beginning to feel a bit of a pinch from the closure, with some shelves in food stores looking bare. “It’s an important reminder of why being prepared is a good idea,” she said.

Tofino Co-op general manager Mike Tomilin said his store, the main grocery outlet in town, is already out of dairy products and produce. “And we were hurting from the week before with the snowstorm.”

Gas is also a concern, said Tomilin, who suggested motorists’ best option is a “mid-grade” fuel — a combination of premium and regular. “Our regular’s getting low but we still have a fair amount of premium gas left,” he said.

Tomilin said he expected the mid-grade would be sold until Saturday night. At that point, if the road remains closed, he will have to stop sales to keep some gas for Tofino’s emergency needs, he said.

Osborne said if medical emergencies arise during the closure, there is a helipad at Tofino General Hospital. “There is a lot of dialogue going on right now between the Ministry of Transportation, Island Health, B.C. Ambulance Service and B.C. Emergency Health Services,” she said. “They’re monitoring the weather and looking at all of that. I’m confident that we’re safe.”

Pacific Coastal Airlines, which does not ordinarily have a Saturday flight to the area during the winter, has added one.

Tourism Tofino issued a statement saying that people planning to visit the community on the weekend are advised to cancel or postpone their stay.

Blasting for the highway project led to two briefer closures in July.

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