NEWS
02/15/2017 15:22 EST | Updated 02/16/2018 00:12 EST

Coquihalla Highway 'instant skating rink' closures a warning for more than those trapped in cars

Tina Webber was travelling from Victoria to Kamloops for a family ski trip this past weekend when she ended up spending an unexpected night in her car with her two young boys on B.C.'s notorious Coquihalla Highway.

When Webber's family headed out they monitored DriveBC and Twitter for trouble. But despite the icy roads ahead, they saw no dire warnings or yellow road signs flashing about "extreme mountainous conditions."

Fortunately her family was prepared for the trip on the mountain route — with food, books and sleeping bags.

But as a doctor, she wishes there had been more official warnings in case people had medical conditions or did not expect to be trapped.

"We expected it to be bad, but the freezing rain killed it. It was like a skating rink. When we got out and walked around I actually fell down it was so icy," said Webber, one of hundreds of travellers whose emergency preparedness was tested by an unexpected night out on the route.

Highway officials say they were also caught off guard by the freeze-up.

"The intensity with which the freezing rain came — I don't think anybody was expecting that," said Bob Gilowski, manager for VSA highway maintenance, the company contracted to maintain the precarious highway.

"Freezing rain that's hitting a super-cooled road surface resulted in an almost instant skating rink."

Nobody likes road closures — especially main arteries — and highways departments avoid them, for good reasons.

But Tom Klement, a road engineer expert in Ontario, says B.C. is unprepared for rare extreme winter weather even though the technology exists to manage de-icing.

"It's a question of political pressure. The state of preparedness just may have to increase," said Klement.

Just in time but running late

The overnight highway closures last week also illustrated what could happen to those who are not even travelling if a major disaster blocked the road for more than a day.

The 324-kilometre Coquihalla Highway — which is infamous for its steep grade, changeable weather and avalanche risks — is a main vein of transport, trade and travel for much of the interior of B.C.

In Prince George Save on Foods posted apologies on empty food bins, saying it was short on produce because trucks were stuck.

The shortage of bananas and cucumbers left northern resident questioning their blind confidence in their food supply and wondering how fast an inconvenience could morph into something much worse.

Food and other supplies running out is a big problem, say emergency preparedness experts, who describe how we are victims of our own efficiency with the advent of just-in-time delivery models.

Storms and disasters underline this vulnerability.

"When something goes wrong. When you can't get through and there's no back up — suddenly we are finding ourselves in trouble," said Paul Kovacs executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University.

Lessons learned

Kovacs says it is important not to just count on the government to close the roads or keep people safe.

People also have to make smart, measured decision about the risks they take and how prepared they are, he says.

That means asking when roads are this bad — do you need to travel?

"It's really important to talk and say what did I learn from this so that I don't get caught in this the next time," said Kovacs who warns that "with climate change there will be a next time."

For Webber and her flame-haired boys it was a relief when traffic began to roll the next morning, after an uncomfortable spent night reading books and telling stories in their car.

Her boys escaped unscathed and feeling like they had a Canadian adventure — but she said she was most uneasy as they finally started to move, passed by panicky truck drivers, many still sliding without chains and trying to make up time lost on an icy highway in a "just in time delivery" world.