Calls for solutions come after repeated holiday highway closures

After two highway closures in a week left travellers stranded in Revelstoke, locals are looking for solution.

On the highway

It was Saturday, Dec. 27, and Marcia Young and her husband were on their way home to Summerland from Calgary, where they spent Christmas, when traffic came to a stop outside Revelstoke.

They sat in their car for two hours wondering what was happening. Reports came down the line of vehicles of a serious accident and people dead. Some people turned around and drove back to Revelstoke.

“I felt we weren’t told enough when we were sitting on the road,” Marcia told me a few days later. “There should have been some policeman or somebody who came back along the line who said this wouldn’t be cleared for a while, so we could turn around and go back.”

Two hours after they came to a stop, a highway worker finally drove down the line of parked cars to let them know the highway would be closed for up to another seven hours. The Young’s turned around and drove to Revelstoke.

“The whole of Revelstoke was just teeming with people,” said Marcia. “It was a little unnerving.”

In town

Meanwhile, at the Alpenrose Bed & Breakfast, Lisa Fik was fielding a constant stream of phone calls. As the first accommodation in the directory, she’s used to being the first place people call when they’re looking for a place to stay.

“When the road closes, I know immediately that it happens because the phone doesn’t stop ringing off the hook,” she said. “It’s not like this is something new. It’s happened over the years.”

From some conversations she had over the summer, she knew the C3 Church might be opening their doors to people, but she also started putting people in touch with friends she knew were willing to put people up. She estimates she helped 20 families that night — seniors, families with babies and many others — but she’s hesitant to take credit.

“It’s the people who took people in that deserve the thanks,” she said.

At the Visitor Information Centre about 250 people came in seeking accommodation, and more people were calling, said Judy Goodman, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. Most hotel rooms were booked up, so staff took down people’s names, phone numbers and the number of beds they needed. When residents called in offering up space, they would match the parties up.

The C3 Church opened their doors, welcomed in about 30 people and provided them with coffee, hot chocolate and snacks. “People were really grateful,” said pastor Dave Olson.

The Youngs found a place to stay with a local family. After driving around the streets, they approached a young couple, who contacted their family, who offered up a bed and dinner. Marcia wrote a letter to the Times Review (see page 6) thanking them.

“I thought it would be nice for people to know how many good people there are in Revelstoke,” she said. “We were so impressed and so thrilled to be given a bed to sleep on.”

The highway opened at about 9:30 p.m. after an eight hour closure. Two people died in the crash that took place when a westbound semi collided with an eastbound vehicle. Hours passed while the crash was investigated and the BC Coroners Service attended the scene.

The repeat

On Jan. 2, less than a week later, it happened again — a four-vehicle crash that left two dead near Albert Canyon east of Revelstoke at around 2 p.m. that afternoon.

The tragic crash resulted in a lengthy closure as investigators, BC Air Ambulance and the coroner attended the scene. Once again, hundreds of travellers pulled into Revelstoke with nowhere to go.

“The second time was unique as well in that the fire chief called me on my cell phone, which makes a huge difference because we can get going right away on what we need to do,” said Goodman.

Things went better this time — there was a few dozen hotel rooms available and not as many people coming off the highway.

Unfortunately the Visitor Information Centre was closed due to renovations taking place next door that left staff feeling sick. Instead, Goodman posted a note on the door with a list of resources for people looking for a place. She sent an e-mail to all accommodators and restaurants advising them of the closure and to let her know if any of them had room. Otherwise, people were asked to check the Stoke List and RevySell Facebook group if they needed a room.

Stacey Brensrud, who administer the RevySell group, started a thread where people could post if they had room for people. “Stacey who runs RevySell has been outstanding,” said Goodman.

Once again, the C3 Church opened their doors and someone brought in two pots of soup for people to enjoy. “I was completely amazed by the generosity of people in the city,” said Olson.

The reaction

Between the two incidents, I spoke to Mayor Mark McKee. As the former head of the Safe Trans-Canada Highway lobby group, he’s well aware of the issues facing the highway.

“There’s lots of room for improvements,” he told me when asked about the closure.

To start with, he said accidents need to be investigated faster so the highway can re-open quicker. By the time the investigator has arrived, the investigation takes place and the accident cleaned up, hours have passed.

“There’s got to be better ways to be doing this,” he said. “It’s unfortunate people lost their lives but we have to think about the others. In a nine hour closure, I’m estimating 5,000 people were affected.

“That’s a lot of people. That puts a lot of strain on the community.”

McKee’s other issue is that the highway was left open at Golden, meaning more and more people kept heading west, only to get stuck in Revelstoke. It took a call to the mayor of Golden to get highway officials to shut down the highway there to stop people heading west.

McKee praised locals who took people in and helped find people places to stay.

“I’m happy with the way our community reacted, I’m not happy with the process we’re going through to get this highway re-opened and get traffic flowing,” he said.

To develop a response, a group of stakeholders was set to meet on Monday afternoon to discuss a plan for going forward.

“I want to have a sit-down meeting with all the affected parties, look at the system that’s in place, come up with a better system,” he said. “We have to start thinking about all these people that are lined up on the highway, have nowhere to go, no information.”

Goodman said there could be better communication. She said for the second incident, when fire chief Rob Girard called her within moments of the accident, they were better able to respond. “If we don’t find out about it we get behind the eight ball,” she said.

She also wants to compile a list of locals that can put people up, so that way they don’t have to wait for people to come forward.

“There’s lots of people that want to help and they want to be on a list,” she said. “We can have an e-mail group and have a list of people we can start calling.”

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