01/18/2012 10:12 EST | Updated 03/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Arctic blast grips B.C., closing Coquihalla Highway

An icy blast of arctic air has put all of B.C. in a deep freeze, forcing the closure of some schools in Victoria and the Fraser Valley and creating delays for travellers on roads, trains, buses, planes and even a ferry.

Drive BC said at noon that the Coquihalla Highway 5 was closed between Portia Interchange and Merritt, and there was limited visiblity on other sections of the route.

In Metro Vancouver snow started to accumulate on roads during the morning commute and TransLink said HandyDART service would switch to essential service only. Freezing doors also delayed some SkyTrain service and TransLink was advising commuters to expect delays on buses and SkyTrains.

"Looks like there could be some more issues as the morning unfolds, so please remember to dress for the elements and wear appropriate footwear," said TransLink spokesman Drew Snider.

On southern and eastern Vancouver Island heavy snow that fell overnight created treacherous conditions on the roads, and Environment Canada was warning residents to expect up to 10 cm of snow on Wednesday morning.

Several flights out of Victoria International Airport were cancelled on Wednesday morning and officials were warning travellers to check the airport website before they go. Some flights from Vancouver International to Victoria International were also cancelled, along with floatplane flights between the two harbours.

BC Ferries was forced to cancel one scheduled stop at Galiano Island for the morning sailing of the southern Gulf Islands ferry because of the winds.

Many bus routes around the Victoria area were operating on limited service and Drive BC issued a travel advisory for highways 19, 19A and highway 1, especially on the Malahat, warning of blowing snow and limited visibility.

The winds are expected to be particularly strong in the Fraser Valley where blowing snow created treacherous driving conditions. Abbotsford police said Whatcom Road was closed south of Highway 1, and there were white-out conditions on Highway 11 and Vye Road.

Drive BC issued a travel advisory for Highway 1 in the region and BC Hydro reported about 8,000 customers in the Chilliwack area were without power on Wednesday morning.

The Abbotsford School District announced that due to extreme weather conditions it was immediately closing Matsqui, Barrowtown and Upper Sumas elementary schools, at 10 a.m. The Chilliwack school district is also closing all its schools at noon.

"Staff are currently contacting parents/guardians to ascertain if they can pick up their children; if not, the elementary students will be moved to Middle schools in Abbotsford via school bus for the remainder of the day, where parents can pick them up," said a statement issued by the district at 10 a.m. PT

The ridge of arctic air sitting across the interior of B.C. has also created strong outflow winds along the B.C. coast, producing wind chill values from -20 on the South Coast to -35 on the North Coast.

In the Interior, the arctic air and the northern winds are forecast to drop wind chill values to -35 in the South Thompson, Fraser Canyon and Nicola regions and to -45 in the Peace River, Yoho Park, Kootenay Park, Elk Valley and Chilcotin regions today. In Northern B.C. wind chill values could hit -50 by Wednesday afternoon.

People planning to spend time outdoors should exercise extreme caution as frostbite can occur within minutes, officials warn.

School closures

- University of the Fraser Valley - all campuses closing at 1 p.m.

- Chilliwack School District - all schools closing at noon.

- Matsqui, Barrowtown and Upper Sumas elementary schools, Abbotsford.

- Vancouver Island University campuses in Cowichan, Nanaimo and Parksville.

- Qualicum School District - all schools.

- Saanich School District - all schools.

- Fraser-Cascade School District - all schools.

- Greater Victoria School District - all schools.

- Sooke School District - all schools.

- Victoria Catholic School Board - all schools.

- Royal Roads University, Esquimalt.

- Camosun College, Victoria.

- Gulf Island School District open, but no buses running.

- Mission district schools open, but school buses #3, #4, and #9 are not running.

- Qwam Qwam School, Nanaimo.

- St. Margarets, Victoria.

- Nightingale Preschool and Junior Kindergarten, Fernwood.

- Christchurch Cathedral School, Victoria.

- Ecole Brodeur, Victoria.

- St Michaels University School, Victoria.

- Sprott-Shaw Community College, Victoria.

- Eaton Arrowsmith School, Victoria.

- St. Jean Brebeuf Secondary, Abbotsford.

- St. James Elementary, Abbotsford.

- John Calvin Christian School, Chilliwack.

- Credo Christian High School, Langley.

- All public libraries in Greater Victoria are closed