Winter hit the coast with a sledgehammer last weekend, stranding motorists from West Vancouver to Lillooet as highway and emergency crews dealt with snow, ice, motor vehicle accidents, floodwaters, and avalanche hazards.
The worst of the storm hit on Sunday, with snowfalls of more than 34 cm reported on sections of Highway 99. That led to several accident closures during the day, and the eventual decision by the Ministry of Transportation to close the highway from West Vancouver to Whistler, and from Whistler to Pemberton from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. to allow tow trucks to clear dozens of stranded vehicles and for plows to get ahead of the storm.
The snowstorm encompassed much of the coast, as far south as Seattle, and made for some long drives home on Sunday. Depending on when vehicles left relative to the closures it took people anywhere from five hours to nine hours to reach Vancouver from Whistler, and travellers booked out hotels in Squamish to wait out the storm.
According to Constable Scott Bowden of Sea to Sky Traffic Services, the response of emergency services and highway crews to the storm will be evaluated next week at a debriefing with the Ministry of Transportation, Sea to Sky Regional Police Services, the West Vancouver Police Department and other stakeholders.
Overall, Bowden says that drivers were generally better prepared for the storm than in the past.
“We don’t have any numbers yet, but I can tell you that most of the highway closures were on Sunday, including a number of minor closures in West Vancouver because of motor vehicle accidents and problems around highway construction at Ansell Place (where the highway is diverted over a steep hill),” he said. “In communication with the Ministry of Transportation it was decided that we should close the highway for two hours, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., to give road crews a chance to clear the highway of snow and give the RCMP and contractors time to tow stranded and abandoned vehicles.
“We did reopen at 8:30 p.m., and things moved a lot more smoothly after that. It was still slow, but cars were moving and a few problem areas were taken care of. A lot of the traffic was because of volume at that point, and the fact they had snow in the city — people would get off the highway and would be just as backed up on the roadways.”
Bowden says the debriefing will help adjust their response to the next major storm.
“We’ll be looking to see what went well, what didn’t go well, and what changes we can make,” he said. “The number one concern for the RCMP is ensuring that motorists have proper tires. That means proper snow tires, not just winter tires or all-seasons.”