Since time immemorial, Revelstoke has lobbied for improvements to the highway system. One goal of the improvements is to reduce closures due to avalanches and avalanche control. The hold-up, as most know, is money; highway mega-projects are extremely expensive.
In the meantime, there’s lots you can do to keep you, your guests and your clients away from the closures – and a lot of it can be done for free.
Bruce Allen is the B.C. Ministry of Transportation Revelstoke-based Highways Snow Avalanche Technician. I met him in his office overlooking a snowy Alpine Village Mall parking lot on a Sunday afternoon. He toured me around complicated-looking computer forecasting programs that give up-to-the-minute reports from weather stations, including in the Three Valley Gap area.
We worked together to compile avalanche tips for the motoring public, primarily focusing on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Revelstoke. Here they are:
It’s all about the weather
Avalanche closures result from precipitation, and almost always happen during the storm or shortly after. To anticipate closures, look for weather forecasts that include lots of snow or rain-on-snow. A bigger storm increases the likelihood of a longer “passive” closure. Avalanche conditions could deteriorate late in the day, leading to an overnight closure because crews cannot work in the dark. “If we’ve got a lot of snow and it’s going to rain, stay home,” Allen said.
Precipitation causes avalanches
Snow on snow can cause avalanche conditions. Rain on snow can be worse, as it has the potential to make dangerous slushy conditions that are harder to control. So, a springtime storm or a “pineapple express” from the mid-Pacific can cause lengthy closures as much as a severe mid-winter snowstorm. “It’s the highest hazard area in B.C.,” said Allen of our local highways. That’s using a calculation based on the number of avalanches, the distance and traffic volumes.
Most people are aware of DriveBC.ca, the online provincial highway information system. Learn how to use it to look for forecast avalanche closures or other incidents, such as closures caused by accidents. Use the mobile version on your smartphone and bookmark the road conditions page for the Trans-Canada from Kamloops to the Alberta Border. Avalanche closure notices will be posted there. There are also many other advisories there warning of hazards, conditions and delays. “We’re not just forecasting avalanches,” Allen said. “We’re traffic management.” The goal of DriveBC is to keep traffic flowing and advise drivers.
Know the two-hour rule
Scheduled avalanche control closures at places like Three Valley Gap are posted two-hours before the event happens, Allen said. So, you should be able to avoid avalanche closures if you check DriveBC just before you leave town.
Check 89.9 FM
It’s old school but it still works. The Ministry of Transportation office transmits local highways advisories real-time to the maintenance yard where a worker records and uploads recordings, such as avalanche closure warnings, to the highway advisory radio channel.
Avalanche control doesn’t happen in the dark
“The key is we don’t fly in the dark,” Allen said. Avalanche control, such as blasting from helicopters, doesn’t start until after it gets light out. Visitors travelling to Revelstoke from the Okanagan should be able to make it here for skiing or sledding if they can get past Three Valley Gap before sunrise. There are some closures caused by natural sliding, known as “passive” closures. In total, there were 13 avalanche closures west of Revelstoke last year. Nine of them were in the one- to two-hour range. Three ranged between six to eight hours, while the longest was 17 hours.
Some avalanche closures are forecast the day before
If you check DriveBC.ca, some – but not all – scheduled avalanche closures are posted the night before, meaning you can plan to leave earlier or later to avoid them. “I think people have to take a certain amount of responsibility to find information,” Allen said.
It’s a mix of technology and common sense. But for drivers who travel on local highways in the winter, we know many drivers lack the latter. Avalanches are one thing, but closures for crashes and other incidents are also big contributors to highway downtime. Allen notes he spends a lot of his working life on the highways around Revelstoke. Get winter tires (he calls all-season tires “three-season tires”) and watch your speed, he advised. “I don’t go into the ditch; I just slow down.”