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B.C. storm: 50 cm of snow expected to fall on highways during wintry blast

Police are warning motorists to slow down and drive according to the conditions.

British Columbia's government is warning residents of treacherous roads, cold temperatures and dangerous avalanche conditions as the year's first blast of winter settles in.

The Ministry of Emergency Management said after a warm start to winter, the forecast has returned to what is more seasonal and will remain that way for the days and weeks ahead.

After emerging from a series of snow and wind advisories, B.C. is now in for some frigid weather, with a forecast of bitter cold in the northern part of the province with a prediction of -41 C in Fort St. John by Friday night and -7 C for the same time in Vancouver.

The ministry issued a statement Tuesday urging drivers to be prepared for changing road conditions and avoid unnecessary travel in poor weather.

It also said people who use the backcountry need to be mindful of conditions and "use extreme caution in mountainous terrain."

Avalanche Canada classified the terrain as "very dangerous" for mountains throughout much of Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, the Sea to Sky and Fraser Valley regions, as well as the east Kootenay area, including Fernie.

The avalanche forecaster said the danger is high in both the alpine and treeline after more than 30 centimetres of snow and extreme winds created touchy storm slabs ready to come down.

"We are confident the likelihood of avalanche will increase with the arrival of the forecast weather," Avalanche Canada said in its summary.

RCMP in Merritt cautioned drivers on how quickly conditions on the Coquihalla Highway can change in the winter months.

Mounties said one person died in a crash on the highway Monday.

Police said a Ford pickup truck was travelling south when it crossed into oncoming traffic, hitting a semi-truck and trailer.

Investigators said the driver of the pickup truck was declared dead at the scene, while a passenger was airlifted to hospital.

Videos posted online Tuesday showed vehicles losing traction and sliding down roads in Kamloops, B.C., while others showed whitecap waves crashing into the west coast of Vancouver Island, where thousands woke up without power.

More than 18,000 people were without power at the peak of high winds on Tuesday, mostly in the Lower Mainland, on the Sunshine Coast and on Vancouver Island, including parts of Victoria.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is forecasting up to 50 centimetres of snow between Monday and Wednesday on highway passes in B.C.

“Significant snowfall for those areas,” says meteorologist Alyssa Charbonneau. "We saw between 15 to 20 centimeters so far falling over parts of the Coquihalla and Hope to Allison Pass as well."

Whistler and mountains in the south coast of British Columbia also saw quite a bit as the snow as the accumulation started earlier than other areas.

“Over those highway passes, we're still expecting heavy snow to continue today,” says Charbonneau. "This is a storm that brought a lot of weather to different parts of the province all at once."

The weather event is a good reminder to British Columbians that winter is not over.

"[We] can't count winter over yet and it's really important to take all those precautions," she says.

BC Ferries, meanwhile, cancelled some sailings on routes between Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island on Tuesday.

Time to reconsider how we travel?

Gord Lovegrove, an associate professor of civil engineering at UBC Okanagan, says with climate change, “we’re seeing it get worse, not better.” 

“Extreme events are getting more frequent,” the Kelowna resident tells Glacier Media. 

Add in human driving error, and Lovegrove says maybe it’s time to get people out of their cars and onto tram-trains, like those in Europe.

“We’re researching that here in B.C.,” he says. “It’s eminently affordable and as more extreme weather events come, maybe we need to start looking at more resilient ways to travel.”

Other suggestions made by Lovegrove to give people options beyond driving or staying home include more bus services like Ebus, carpooling and a nationwide rail passenger service.

“That [service] provides that lateral safety and you can put that in pavement in the middle of highways, beside highways,” he says. “We need to be looking at stuff like that. We need to get radical.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2024.

The Canadian Press

With files from Alanna Kelly