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'It's not sustainable': Workers cut off by highway closure look for alternate route

Panic-buying has meant some supplies are dwindling on grocery-store shelves
Randy Harrison and his son Patrick Harrison, who live in Whiskey Creek, are cut off from much of their excavation work in Port Alberni by the closure of Highway 4. The detour via Lake Cowichan makes for an eight-hour roundtrip commute. SUBMITTED

Many people initially stranded by the closure of Highway 4 east of Port Alberni have managed to get out via a lengthy detour, but those who commute into the affected area for work are scrambling.

A wildfire near Cameron Lake has closed the highway since Tuesday, and a four-hour detour through Lake Cowichan was made available Wednesday, although that detour is expected to be closed for several hours today to haul out a vehicle that went into Francis Lake.

Randy Harrison lives in ­Whiskey Creek and does much of his excavation work in Port Alberni, normally a short drive away. But with the highway closed, his commute to work has gone from 20 minutes to four hours.

“It’s a good thing we do have a detour to get out of there, but it’s not sustainable for contractors who are working back and forth,” he said.

Harrison is hoping to gain access to Horne Lake Road, a logging road that’s currently gated and controlled by Mosaic Forest Management, which would cut his commute to about an hour.

Mosaic’s voicemail message says the company is working with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure on emergency evacuation routes.

“Mosaic’s private roads are restricted to emergency and authorized personnel only,” the message says.

Harrison said he understands that it doesn’t make sense to open the road to the public, but he hopes access can be extended to people who need to travel for essential purposes.

“I think that there should be an alternative way for contractors that have to work, you know, because it’s impacting us dearly,” he said.

Harrison drove the detour route via Lake Cowichan Wednesday in his dump truck and was in a constant line of traffic for the roughly four and a half hours it took him.

“The worst part about the traffic was the dust, because the dust was so great a danger factor you can’t see. If you’ve got the sun in your eyes, you couldn’t see to where you were to go,” he said.

Vehicles were kicking up rocks and the dust made breathing uncomfortable, he said.

Harrison said he had to take the road slowly in his dump truck and was constantly slowing down to wait for dust to clear. “And then there was another 20 cars coming at you,” he said.

Al Maxwell travelled to Ucluelet last week from Mayne Island to visit his son and is now looking at an extended trip. He and his wife had planned to leave Friday, but they intend to wait for the highway to reopen before they go.

“Maybe a day after it opens, because it’s just going to be crazy,” he said.

The local grocery store has been limiting the amount of dairy products it stocks on the shelves at a time, and there have been 30-litre limits at gas stations, Maxwell said. He’s watched several people load up on toilet paper.

Ucluelet Mayor Marilyn ­McEwen said she has heard concerns that companies that deliver pharmaceuticals don’t want to drive the detour, raising questions about the supply of medications.

In Port Alberni, Mayor Sharie Minions said the city woke up Thursday to the news that four gas stations were dry and ­supplies at grocery stores were dwindling as people started to make panic purchases.

There was a temporary shortage of some goods Wednesday before the detour was ­established, but the situation has stabilized, Minions said.

“I’m telling people over and over, supply chains are not broken. Supplies are coming into our community as they always do. Gas tanks are being filled. Grocery stores have been receiving their deliveries this morning,” she said.

The biggest risk to the supply chain now is panic buying and hoarding goods, Minions said, appealing to residents to shop as they normally would and have confidence that there is no interruption to deliveries.

There were temporary limits put on how much fuel could be purchased at one time, but that’s been lifted since gas deliveries resumed Thursday, she said.

If people continue to panic buy, the city will consider ­putting limits on how much residents can purchase of ­certain items, but Minions doesn’t expect that will be necessary.

— with files from Jeff Bell

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