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What remains of the Othello Tunnels after the B.C. storms?

The Coquihalla River flowed through two of the Othello Tunnels and caused significant damage

The Othello Tunnels — a popular B.C. tourist destination — have been significantly damaged after a series of storms caused enormous volumes of water to flow through Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park.

BC Parks area supervisor Rob Wilson tells Glacier Media damage to the park is "quite extensive" and that "quite a bit" of the access road to the tunnels has been lost.

“There have been a number of large trees that have fallen from slopes above, indicating that there was probably a landslide in the area that washed the trees down onto the trail,” he says.

The tunnels have also seen significant destruction, Wilson adds, noting staff aren't sure when any of the rock cliffs surrounding the tunnels may shed another boulder.

"Even a small rock the size of a baseball could kill you if it lands on you,” he says.

The tunnels — hailed by some as an engineering feat — were built in the early 1900s by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

At the time, CPR wanted to link the Kootenay region with the B.C. coast by rail. Chief engineer Andrew McCulloch was tasked with building the railway over three major mountain ranges. The Othello Tunnels, near Hope, became part of the Kettle Valley Railway. 

Unfortunately, the line was plagued with snow and rockslides. On Nov. 23, 1959, a 400-foot washout occurred just north of the tunnels. Crews closed the line and never reopened it. 

Wilson says there was also significant damage to the tunnels in 1994, but the damage from this storm cycle is "significantly worse.”

Today, the tunnels and the surrounding area are part of the provincial park. 

The tourist attraction is closed every winter. Wilson says safety prevention methods that are normally in place have been destroyed or have been compromised by the recent floods. Slides and debris have caused the site to be unsafe and dangerous, he says.

A formal assessment to determine the integrity of the tunnels can't be done yet.

"I can tell you that the first two tunnels had a river running through [them]... a lot of the gravel that formed the base that people walked along has been washed away,” he says, noting the granite structures of the tunnels are still intact. 

"That means that over time, we will likely be able to put the gravel back on the floor of the tunnels and we’ll likely be able to rescale the area and make it safe to the public, but we are still in that damage assessment phase.”

Once it's safe, geotechnical engineers will access the site. 

A couple who was helping people move out of their flooded homes on Othello Road captured some of the damage.

"We went down and were pretty shocked by what we saw,” says Adam Szakall. 

He tells Glacier Media the trail to the tunnels was covered in six inches of mud and there were log jams and debris all over.

"The water levels at some point in time were as high as the trestle.”

BC Parks is asking the public to stay clear of damaged areas. Anyone who tries to enter a closed provincial park can be fined up to $1,000,000 under the Park Act. Charges may be brought forward.

Wilson hopes people will do the "right thing” and not draw on resources that are focusing on roads, homes and highways damaged in the storm. 

“We are going to figure out what it’s going to take to put the tunnels back together and get our amazing guests from British Columbia and around the world back to the park,” says Wilson.

The park normally reopens in May, but Wilson says it's unclear if that will be the case in 2022.

In a statement to Glacier Media, the Ministry of Transportation says an aerial assessment of Othello Road was done on Nov. 15. Field staff, meanwhile, were on the ground from Nov. 18 to 30, "monitoring the situation."

"Since Dec. 2, the ministry has conducted two follow-up inspections with hydrotechnical and geotechnical engineers," the ministry said. "In addition, work is ongoing in the area to support the Othello Interchange and Highway 5 response efforts."

The statement noted engineers will consider "how future changes to weather will affect the infrastructure, and what can be done to make our roads and bridges more resilient."

Editor's note: This story was updated on Dec. 9 to include comments from the Ministry of Transportation.

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