Nuu-chah-nulth Nations and Port Alberni support request for alternative route to Hwy 4

Nuu-chah-nulth Nations and Port Alberni support request for alternative route to Hwy 4
Firefighters battle the Cameron Bluffs wildfire.

The Cameron Bluffs fire ravaged the hillside along Highway 4 heading into Port Alberni, but also separated communities.

“None of us could get out of Port Alberni. I was supposed to be at grad as the chancellor of the Vancouver Island University, so I missed a very important event,” said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, who can’t fly because of ongoing PTSD relating to a plane crash she recently experienced.

Sayers says 10 First Nations that need to be able to use the highway to get out of Port Alberni, couldn’t.

A logging road detour was opened up but it was not suitable for all vehicles, had varying degrees of visibility, and lacked amenities, like food, fuel, washrooms, and emergency services.

As a result, the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations from both Port Alberni and the West Coast are calling for an alternative route.

“I know the regional district has proposed a couple routes to the federal and provincial government, but have always been told it’s too expensive. But what’s more expensive is not having that alternative route,” Sayers told CHEK News.

Regional support 

Voting unanimously in agreement is the city of Port Alberni.

During a meeting on Monday, June 26, Port Alberni city council voted to support a letter written by the Tseshaht First Nation addressed to B.C. Premier David Eby and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “requesting the establishment of an alternative access road in response to the Cameron Lake Bluffs Fire and associated closure of Highway 4.”

The council also discussed writing a letter of its own to be distributed at the upcoming Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC) conventions.

During the meeting, Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions told council that a BC Wildfire Service member had told her that their current technologies don’t support fighting fires overnight.

“Coulson Aviation has a night vision helicopter flying technology,” said Minions in the meeting.

Minions indicated she’d like a contract with the Port Alberni-based Coulson Aviation to be looked into as a result, along with other resources, a secondary road, and more investment in wildfire resources.

“Two large corporations not only control our access out into the forest, but now they control access in and out of our community,” said Councillor John Douglas. “We need to have a secondary access road for the Alberni Valley from the east side of the Island.”

Economic impact of the closure

Businesses on the West Coast told CHEK News of the negative economic impacts at the time. The region’s chamber says the revenue loss was significant.

“This shutdown had a huge impact on our community, especially the economy,” said Jolleen Dick, CEO of the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber is in the midst of conducting a survey of businesses in the region on the economic impact of the highway closure. A firm number will be available in the fall.

Dick says she does know definitively, though, that the current road doesn’t stand up to the community’s needs.

“There are still some goods and resources that are still not able to get through the alternate route at this time,” she said. “So a secondary route is desperately needed, not just for the economy, so that people with medical appointments can get out of the valley.”

Government open to “continuing the conversation”

A representative for the Ministry of Transportation told CHEK News they “will continue the conversation around the feasibility of an alternative route,” while highlighting the work they’ve done to upgrade the current Highway 4 that connects to the Inland Island Highway (Highway 19).

“The ministry has also focused on bringing a safer and more reliable connection between Port Alberni and the west coast of Vancouver Island. That’s why funding was placed in the Highway 4 Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project (a total of $53.96 million) that was recently completed, turning this stretch into a safe and reliable route for travellers,” Ceara Kavanagh, public affairs officer for the Ministry of Transportation, told CHEK News in a statement.

For the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, they want less talk and more action on another road or railway, so their communities and people aren’t stuck again.

“We had a railway that the government said they’d invest in that they haven’t,” said Sayers. “We have to put a plan in place and just start doing it.”

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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