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Work underway to reopen Highway 4 to Port Alberni this weekend

Workers are clearing the road, stabilizing the steep slope above the highway and taking out dangerous trees

Times Colonist

Crews are preparing to reopen a stretch of Highway 4, closed due to a wildfire, starting with single-lane alternating traffic this weekend, restoring a key link between the east and west sides of Vancouver Island.

Workers are clearing the road, stabilizing the steep slope above the highway and taking out trees that might fall while firefighters continue to tackle the 229-hectare Cameron Bluffs fire, now classified as under control.

The seven-kilometre stretch of Highway 4 between Cathedral Grove and Koen Road was closed June 6, three days after the fire broke out, as trees and rocks began tumbling down the slope.

On Monday, 54 firefighters, one helicopter and one piece of heavy equipment were working on the fire, doing patrols and extinguishing hot spots in accessible terrain, the B.C. Wildfire Service said.

Meanwhile, IslandLink bus service’s 24-seat TofinoExpressBus has resumed limited service, carrying passengers between Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino for $5 per one-way trip.

Owner Phillip Morgan said services were suspended June 8 due to the road closure, cutting off access to Nanaimo, but “[we] now realize the people on the coast also require local services.”

“We can see that west coast residents have been dealt a pretty bad hand with respect to satisfying their transportation needs over the past two to three years, first with COVID and now with a road closure.”

The $5 fare will stay in effect until at least Thanksgiving, Morgan said. Fares for those routes ranged from $10 to $40 prior to the closure.

Morgan is hoping to see the highway reopen on the weekend, when he plans to resume bus service out of Nanaimo to the west coast.

The highway closure has gutted the tourism sector on the Island’s west coast, with Tofino’s mayor saying seasonal workers are being laid off and millions of dollars are being lost daily because visitors are staying away.

Businesses are scrambling to keep going, hoping needed supplies will arrive via a commercial truck convoy travelling daily on a gravel detour route, and that they will be able to send out their products. Some are turning to barges to make the trip by sea.

Long queues are anticipated once traffic is moving through the Cameron Lake area again. The province anticipates the highway will be fully open by mid-July.

Essential traffic, including four commercial convoys accompanied by pilot vehicles, have priority access on the lengthy detour route via the Bamfield area and Lake Cowichan. The detour, which takes about four hours to complete, will remain open until access is back to normal, the Transportation Ministry said. An estimated 1,000 vehicles are using it daily.

The ministry said all assessments of the slope above Highway 4 are completed and crews are concentrating on removing trees that might fall and putting up safety barriers.

It said 32 pieces of equipment are on the site, including four cranes and two excavators, and about 50 people are working in the area. Materials have been brought in for a concrete barrier to be installed in the eastbound lane.

Three segments of a protective mesh curtain for the slope will also be installed. The ministry said all segments have been assembled and tested.

About 124 metres of roadside barrier have been placed on the Cameron Lake side of the highway, the ministry said.

All gas stations in Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet are open, with no limits on fuel.

The Tofino-Long Beach airport and the Alberni Valley regional airport are extremely busy, the ministry said.

In Tofino, Pacific Coastal Airlines is running two to three additional flights daily, plus charter flights.

In Port Alberni, 20 to 30 charters per day are carrying passengers to Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Victoria.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com