Detour in effect as wildfire grows, closes Highway 4 east of Port Alberni

Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure

A detour is now in effect as Highway 4 east of Port Alberni, the main route to and from coastal Tofino and Ucluelet, remains fully closed to vehicle traffic amid an out-of-control wildfire.

The Cameron Bluffs fire adjacent to Cameron Lake and near Cathedral Grove is now a “fire of note,” increasing in size from 109 to 140 hectares, according to the BC Wildfire Service.

“This wildfire is highly visible or poses a potential threat to public safety,” the service says, adding it’s believed to be human caused and that “humans start wildfires in several ways, either by accident or intentionally.”

On Wednesday morning, traffic control crews on scene told a CHEK News reporter the highway was buried beneath “giant firs and boulders” and that “it could take days” before it’s reopened.

Around 11 a.m., the DriveBC said the seven-kilometre stretch of highway was still closed in both directions. It was first closed Tuesday morning and reopened around 11:30 a.m., only to be shuttered again that afternoon.

Detour through Lake Cowichan

At noon Wednesday, the B.C. government said a detour was in place, though drivers are “strongly encouraged to avoid travel in the area unless essential.”

It says the detour will route traffic from Port Alberni to Lake Cowichan via Bamfield using forest service and privately owned industrial roads.

“The gravel detour route has narrow sections, sharp curves, single-lane bridges and challenging terrain,” it said. “There is no cell service, gas stations or washroom facilities on the detour route.”

While regular passenger vehicles like cars, vans and commercial vehicles weighing less than 63,500 kilograms can travel through the detour corridor, which extends travel by about four hours, no over-height or over-weight vehicles are allowed. 

RCMP say Lake Cowichan is currently experiencing “a heavy traffic flow” due to the Highway 4 closure, so it’s encouraging people to drive carefully and obey speed limits.

“It is strongly encouraged to wait to travel if possible,” added the province.

“For drivers who must travel for essential purposes, the province urges preparation and patience. Drivers should fuel up, bring extra supplies, food, and water to be prepared for the high temperatures at this time of year, and note that conditions can change quickly,” it said.

“Drivers are encouraged to plan trips during daylight hours and to drive with caution.”

Signage and traffic-control personnel will direct travellers through the detour, and a map of the route can be found online here.

The province says information checkpoints are also set up at Youbou Road near Lake Cowichan and along Highway 4 at Aspeden Road near Port Alberni.

Crews continue to battle flames

According to the wildfire service, the blaze, which is “highly visible” from the highway, is in steep terrain, and a helicopter is bucketing to support crew operations. 

On Tuesday, Port Alberni’s Mayor Sharie Minions told CHEK News the city was prepared for such an event, as she urged people not to travel out of the community unless necessary.

“…there is a vulnerability there if we are not able to move people safely in and out of our community, and I think today’s situation highlights that more than ever,” said Minions.

A local business owner also voiced concerns about the fire to CHEK News, as a traveller in the area said they had to cut their vacation short.

“It started to come over the ridge, so it’s starting to look like I’d rather pack up and leave while I’m not stressed out and under a panic and maybe before there is an evacuation order,” said Megan Reeves.

More information about the wildfire is online here, while DriveBC posts highway closure updates on its website and Twitter page.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the weight limit for vehicles on the alternate route was 14,500 kilograms as stated by B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. The government later updated that the weight limit is 63,500 kilograms.

Ethan Morneau

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