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Slide closes highway for seven hours

First Nations call for improving Lower Lillooet forestry road as alternate

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By Vivian Moreau

Highway 99 was closed for seven hours on Sunday after a rockslide blocked both lanes of traffic just north of Horseshoe Bay.

Ministry geological crews were on site within minutes but clean-up efforts were hampered by one boulder the size of a small bedroom that had to be blown up, Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Mike Long said.

The slide that occurred about 9:45 a.m. Sunday near Ansell Place turnoff was close to where highway crews had been blasting last week, but it’s unclear if the blasting is related to the slide, Long said.

Recent weather was likely the cause of the slide, staff said. “Rock slides are natural events that we can’t predict,” said spokesperson Jeff Knight. “And we had a period all week of freeze and thaw cycles and they tend to be a contributing factor in rock slides (because of water expansion and contraction).”

Whistler RCMP responded quickly to the slide, stopping traffic near Function Junction to inform motorists of the delay and then placing electronic signs in the village and at Function with messages saying the road was closed due to a rockslide. In addition, the detachment’s emergency operations centre was activated, meaning officers could gain access to equipment loaned by Whistler-Blackcomb and the municipality. Watch commander, Corporal Julie Rockwell, sent faxes to all local hotels to inform guests of the road closure. She also personally phoned the hotels to make sure the message had gotten through. In addition ski lift message boards informed 13,000 people on the hill about the slide and road closure.

“And everybody has to take a lift, so once you put that on the whiteboards on every lift, that’s a lot of people to get that information to in a very short period of time,” said Sgt. Marc Lavergne who helped coordinate the RCMP response.

Plans were being finalized to open a reception centre at Spruce Grove fieldhouse for those that might have needed emergency accommodation but the highway re-opened shortly after 5 p.m.

Whistler Taxi transported three carloads of visitors anxious to make flights at Vancouver International Airport via the six-hour Pemberton-Lillooet-Hope route. Co-owner Grant Gibson said the $500 trip is not one drivers often make but it is another way to get back to the city when Highway 99 is closed.

First Nations in the Lower Lillooet Valley say if the local forestry road that runs from Pemberton to Harrison Lake were upgraded it would provide a safe alternate route to Whistler.

“As populations increase and tourism attracts more and more out-of-area visitors the evidence for analyzing the need for improving access becomes clear,” Gerard Peters said.

Peters is chief negotiator for three First Nations communities in the Lower Lillooet Valley who have been lobbying the provincial government for improvements to the road, saying it would not only “serve the need of the general population for assured safe travel in the event that the major arteries are closed,” but upgrading the road from dirt to gravel would improve the local First Nations’ economy.

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