‘This is a significant weather event’: B.C. eyes highway closures as snowstorm, freezing rain expected to cause chaos


Don’t drive unless absolutely necessary until Christmas.

That’s the message the B.C. government is sending to Vancouver Island and other B.C. South Coast residents about to get hit by a second winter storm in the span of mere days, warning that road conditions could be even more treacherous with the combined elements of snow, freezing rain and a traditional west coast soaker.

Environment Canada has issued a winter storm warning in effect now through Dec. 24, saying this system could cause even greater damage than the one that hit Tuesday.

The storm is expected to start Thursday evening on Vancouver Island with the next round of snow — up to 20 additional centimetres for Greater Victoria, the Southern Gulf Islands and eastern, inland and western Vancouver Island — before changing to freezing rain on Friday, then finally returning to more seasonal rainfall that could lead to localized flooding.

“As always, our contractors will do their best to manage what is thrown our way,” Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said in a news conference Thursday, along with officials including Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma and Environment Canada meteorologists.

“But the timing is going to be tricky to go from plowing a heavy dump of snow to laying down salt to combat the freezing rain. It will be a big challenge. And for those who absolutely must travel, you will need to plan and prepare and we ask for your patience and to exercise the utmost caution.”

It’s possible some may not even have a choice. Fleming said the government is keeping its eye on highway conditions and may issue closures if conditions are too treacherous.

Routes of specific concern on Vancouver Island include Highway 4 to Port Alberni and the Malahat.

“In the interest of safety, we may close highways if necessary, on short notice. I know people have plans for the holidays. they want to spend family time with family, friends and loved ones. But this is a significant weather event,” said Fleming.

“Snow followed by freezing rain and then rain, and the rainfall that follows could be extremely heavy and as much as 80 millimetres which could result in some localized flooding.”

What is freezing rain?

While the snow and extreme cold would be enough on their own, Environment Canada says precipitation will become mixed with ice pellets before changing to rain late Friday on Vancouver Island, bringing with it a chance of freezing rain.

The term describes rain that falls as droplets but immediately freezes upon impact, encasing roadways and anything else it falls on in a layer of ice.

Environment Canada’s hourly forecast for Greater Victoria currently has freezing rain potentially starting at around 10 a.m. Friday, and says drivers should use extreme caution as it will cause “significant impacts” on road conditions.

By Saturday, meteorologists say most areas can expect to return to west coast weather — meaning heavy rain.

“We are pre-positioning flood assets where they might be needed,” said Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma.

Tree limbs may also snap off due to the added weight of wet snow.

RELATED: Man injured by falling tree branch while shovelling Langford driveway

Records shattered

The storm rolling in over the region Thursday is the latest in an unrelenting series of extreme weather events that are rarely seen on B.C.’s South Coast.

The first winter storm on Tuesday pummelled the region with a major dump of snow that brought transportation and services to a grinding halt.

Then on the South Island, an arctic outflow brought wind chill values as low as minus 20 degrees. According to Environment Canada, Dec. 22 broke several daily temperature records including:

  • Victoria International Airport: -8.4 (Previous record of -8.3 set in 1983)
  • Victoria Gonzales: -9.3 (Previous record of -7.8 set in 1983)
  • Nanaimo Airport: -15.6 (Previous record of -13 set in 1983)
  • Victoria Malahat: -12.7 (Previous record of -8.5 set in 1990)

Now with the cold, snow and freezing rain set to combine, there’s concern conditions on highways like the Malahat could be even worse this time around, with maintenance contractor Emcon again advising drivers to stay off the route until the storm passes.

Travel chaos continues

Thursday was a bit better for BC Ferries sailings than previous days, though some morning and early afternoon sailings were cancelled between Duke Point and Tsawwassen due to a burst pipe caused by freezing weather on the Queen of Alberni.

However, the company is warning passengers that Friday could see widespread cancellations and delays due to the severe weather.

“BC Ferries is closely monitoring the weather forecast over the next few days but is warning of the strong possibility of sailing cancellations on a variety of routes across the fleet,” it said in a service notice. “Poor road conditions leading to the terminals as well as high winds are expected to impact operations.”

All passengers should check current conditions before trying to navigate hazardous weather to get to a terminal.

At Victoria International Airport, only a handful of flights were cancelled Thursday. But looking ahead to Friday, most of the morning departures from YYJ were listed as cancelled, likely in anticipation of the incoming storm, as the holiday travel crunch worsens by the day.

On the ground, BC Transit was back in service in Greater Victoria, albeit in a limited capacity.

However, the transit operator announced it would end all bus service as of midnight, with the exception of the bus schedule to pick up passengers from the last ferry to arrive at Swartz Bay.

BC Transit also issued a late-day update saying service would be suspended Friday morning until at least 10:30 a.m. due to the dual threats of snow and freezing rain.

Watch the government’s full news conference below:

Jeff LawrenceJeff Lawrence

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