B.C.’s Forest Safety watchdog called on the province in 2008 to upgrade Bamfield Main logging road, the site of a deadly bus crash on Friday, citing the fear of community members for the schoolchildren and tourists travelling on it
“Bamfield is no longer a logging town,” said the report, titled No Longer the Road Less Travelled by B.C. forest safety ombudsperson Roger Harris.
“We have over 3,500 students participating in marine programs and 16,000 man-days used by researchers at the [Bamfield] Marine Institute,” said the report. It quoted Bamfield community members at a meeting in October 2007: “It scares me the thought of those school and tour buses on the road each day.”
Harris made 17 recommendations. Many were adopted. His key recommendation, however, was to redesignate resource logging-type roads — such as Bamfield Main — that have outgrown their original intent and have become multi-purpose primary and secondary roads connecting communities, typically First Nations, to public highways.
Harris said significantly more students, tourists, workers, residents and commercial outfits “that having nothing to do with logging” are likely travelling Bamfield Main and similar roads today, than when he wrote his report in 2008. He said Bamfield Main and others should be a “government responsibility,” instead of being overseen by forest companies.
On Friday at about 9:30 p.m., Port Alberni Fire Department was called after a Wilson’s Transportation charter bus, carrying 45 first-year-biology students and two teaching assistants from the University of Victoria, slid off Bamfield Main and went down an embankment.
On a rainy and foggy night, the bus was headed to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre where students would research marine life and return to Victoria on Sunday.
Neither UVic nor Wilson’s Transportation has explained why the bus was travelling at that time of night on a road considered unsafe in poor weather conditions.
Eighteen-year-old students John Geerdes, from Iowa City, Iowa, and Emma Machado, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, were pronounced dead at the scene. Three other students were flown to Victoria General Hospital and dozens more were injured.
“It saddened me that’s for sure,” Harris said of hearing about the bus crash and reflecting on the complaints he heard about the Bamfield logging road more than a decade ago.
“It all trickled back into my mind and I just felt sad.”
Harris also felt “deeply disappointed” in the province for not heeding his key recommendation to redesignate one-time logging roads to reflect current use. “The world has changed a lot since 2008 and the government pat answer is ‘it’s a private road and we don’t have a responsibility,’ ” said Harris. “That’s the wrong answer in 2019. For some of these communities, especially a lot of First Nations, these roads need to have a predictability for the people who live there on how it’s going to be built and maintained and if things go wrong who are you going to pick up the phone and call.”
Redesignating the logging roads don’t necessarily mean they need to be paved, but it does mean there needs to be standards for width, ditches, maintenance and responsibility, he said.
The Huu-Ay-Aht First Nation has been asking for Bamfield Main to be paved or chip-sealed.
In light of Friday’s crash, Harris imagines the province will set aside a budget to improve Bamfield Main, but that won’t be enough. A structural, long-term change is needed, he said.
“My fear is government looks at this as a quick fix to get rid of the pressure point because it’s on the radar screen and doesn’t take the time to do this right. Someone needs to do the good work of looking around B.C. and identifying those roads that are more than just a hauler of raw materials.”
A one-time fix will also ignore the overarching issue of equity, especially for First Nations communities, who rely on these roads, said Harris.
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions wrote to the premier, copying to Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, on April 5, saying “a journey on Bamfield Main is often unsafe and unpredictable, resulting in accidents, injuries, damage to vehicles or restricted road access.” She asked for timely upgrades.
Trevena responded on behalf of the premier in May saying that the Transportation Ministry has a long-standing agreement with logging companies who own “the greater balance of the road.”
“We provide supplementary funding of approximately $452,000 annually, and they are ultimately responsible for ensuring the route is maintained,” wrote Trevena.
Huu-ay-aht chief councillor Robert Dennis said he has spent his 21 years as councillor, especially in recent years, asking for road upgrades, but he has largely been dismissed.
Ministry officials have been looking into the issue to determine if safety improvements could be made, but “the situation is complex as this is a private, industrial road, operated and maintained by private companies for active forestry operations,” Trevena said in a statement issued Monday.
Harris questioned how the ministry can “so cavalierly” dismiss the question of responsibility with an answer that allows them “to do nothing.”
“That’s the disappointing part,” he said. “Government should always be looking at ways to improve the quality of life for people and every little bit helps when you start to get out of the urban centres. Road access is just like education and health care and public safety.”
UVic student Sarah Hunter has a petition called “Improve the road conditions between Port Alberni and Bamfield British Columbia” on change.org. On Tuesday night, the petition had a goal of 5,000 signatures.
“It is my hope that after this deadly incident that we as a community are able to pressure the provincial, and the federal government to improve the quality of this one specific road so that the hordes of students travelling on it are guaranteed their safety,” wrote Hunter.