When Vicky Murphy moved just outside Port Alberni on Vancouver Island two years ago, she never anticipated a wildfire would close a vital route into town, setting off her family’s teeth-jarring journey down a forestry back road to get out.
As a self-employed seamstress who makes clothes to sell at summer vendors’ markets and festivals in various locations, Murphy couldn’t risk being stuck at home during her most lucrative time of year.
When provincial officials closed a crucial stretch of Highway 4 due to a wildfire on a slope above the winding island road on June 6, Murphy’s dilemma began.
She visited a grocery store where bare shelves reminded her of pandemic-era panic buying.
As days went by, she realized she had no choice but to load her van and take her two kids, three dogs and a cat to her partner’s home outside Courtenay on the island’s east coast, a daunting six-hour drive down a dusty and pockmarked gravel road.
She arranged with neighbours to check in on her other elderly cat who couldn’t make the trip, and dozens of chickens that roam her property.
She also had to cancel her son’s sixth birthday party on June 13 to make the trip.
“My summer is really just about to kick off,” Murphy said in a phone interview. “Every market and festival I do, I pay for months in advance.”
Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said during an update on the highway that the route had to be closed because of the danger of trees and rocks falling from the steep slope where the fire burned above.
“We know that Highway 4 is a vital connection to Port Alberni, Tofino, Ucluelet and Bamfield and other island communities,” he said on June 13. “I understand the closure has created major challenges for locals, for businesses and tourists, and we are anxious to get the road open as quick as possible.”
With the highway closed, the detour route on the forestry road was Murphy’s only option.
She spent hours in a convoy of vehicles Thursday, which she describes as a harrowing and perilous trip.
As large semi-trucks “thundered” past her van, she couldn’t see the yellow bus her partner was driving ahead of her.
“They were flying past me, so it’s just like, hold your breath, shut your eyes, and just hope that they stay on their side of the road,” she said. “That was the scariest thing.”
Further down, they passed an overturned motorhome in a ditch, then heard ambulance sirens heading back toward Port Alberni.
A car ahead of her tried to overtake other vehicles in the convoy, she said.
“There’s not enough room to get a semi by, and single lane traffic the other way, and this guy is passing cars and it’s dusty as all hell,” she said. “It was just super unnerving. It’s just like you’re waiting for something bad to happen.”
Usually, the trip on the highway for Murphy takes about 1 1/2 hours, but the detour route took six.
Murphy, her kids and pets made it and she set up her sewing gear, settled in and even threw an impromptu birthday party for her youngest.
“Of course, we’re all frazzled. He opened up his presents and then we blew up some balloons, did his birthday cake,” she said. “And he’s like, ‘this is the best birthday ever,’ and I nearly cried.”
On the other side of the island, the highway closure is already devastating the tourism hub of Tofino and other communities.
Brad Parsell, executive director of Tourism Tofino, said in an interview “there have been significant losses in revenue across the board in all sectors and obviously significant drops in hotel occupancy.”
“We’re still trying to quantify the magnitude of the impact,” Parsell said. “It’s very reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.”
Parsell said he was grateful the detour route allows for the flow of essential goods like food, medicine, and gas, but it’s “heart wrenching to watch our business community have to go through something like this again so soon after the disruptions of the pandemic.”
He said the losses to the community are already in the millions, and he’s hoping for some sort of government support for businesses affected by the highway closure, which is expected to last weeks before it can fully reopen.
Parsell said islanders are learning a tough lesson about how closing a short stretch of one road can have “a dramatic and cascading impact” on so many communities, necessitating a conversation about a secondary access solution in the near future.
“We just want to get back into the business of welcoming people to Tofino, and getting on with our summer season, which as you can imagine is so critical to our industry,” Parsell said.
British expat Vicky Murphy said she and her family will wait and see what the future holds for the highway, crediting her English resilience for helping take the inconvenience in stride.
“My grandma survived the war in London, right? So, unless you’re in a war, you’re fine,” she said. “I’m glad I’m here and I’ll just figure it out as I go.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2023.