Highway to Tofino, Ucluelet open for ‘essential’ travel until 8 p.m.

The highway to Ucluelet and Tofino has reopened for "essential" travel for a few hours today, after the road was closed at Kennedy Lake Thursday due to damage and obstructions caused by a rock-blasting mishap.

In an update this morning, the Ministry of Transportation said Highway 4 would open to essential travel from noon to 8 p.m. Vehicles are being screened at the Tofino/Ucluelet junction and at Sproat Lake. Larger vehicles will be turned around. Heavy loads, trucks with duallies, and vehicles towing trailers will not be allowed through.

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The ministry said essential traffic refers to such situations as people with important appointments and vacationers needing to get to and from the Tofino/Ucluelet area.

“Everyone has a different reason for needing to travel,” the ministry said in a statement. “Drivers will not be asked why they are travelling.” 

Afterward, the ministry expects a lengthy closure to install a portable bridge that will allow the highway to open to regular traffic.

A portion of the shoulder and travelling surface of the road fell away when an unexpectedly large volume of rock fell on rain-saturated ground during a scheduled blast early Thursday, according to the ministry.

A contractor worked non-stop through the night to clear and repair the highway.

 “At present, the contractor is placing approximately 15 dump trucks of fill an hour to build up the base,” the ministry said Thursday night.

When efforts to rebuild the road took longer than expected, the decision was made overnight to bridge the damaged section of highway.

First responders have been notified that emergency vehicles can get through the site if necessary.

The key route links Port Alberni to the Tofino/Ucluelet area. Both Tofino and Ucluelet have populations of about 2,000 people, with another 2,000 Indigenous residents in the area.

“I think it’s just a reminder of the simple fact we do live on the west coast and we do have natural disasters or power outages,” Noel said. “It just really brings to the forefront our vulnerability, especially during the [road] construction.”

The Ministry of Transportation said the road structure was damaged by rockfall from an overnight blast Wednesday at a spot where highway improvements are being made.

Noel said he has been pushing for a way to let travellers know in a timely way when such an event happens.

“I do continue to make demands or requests that some type of WiFi or communication be on either side of Kennedy Lake so when there is an upset, it can be relayed to the travelling public in a quicker format, rather than waiting for the ministry to make official announcements.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said she was watching the ministry’s regular updates on the situation Thursday and was concerned that an estimated 5 p.m. opening time had been scrapped.

Like Noel, she said local residents anticipate such road closures, whether from flooding, trees falling or an incident at a construction site. “So we’re prepared for it, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not inconvenient, that’s for certain.”

Osborne said concerns can heighten if a closure stretches on for 24 hours.

“I think that begins to test the limits of people’s patience, especially with supplies needing to come in and out.”

She said the road problem is coming at the slowest time of year for the tourism hotspot, “so hopefully we’re not inconveniencing too many visitors.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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