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Extraordinary snowfall event stretching Vancouver Island snow clearing operations

Provincial contractor clears roads by a priority system that resets upon each snowfall
A bus travels on Dogwood Street amid a snowstorm in Campbell River. Note snow-clearing for municipal and provincial roads are separate operations. Photo by Sean Feagan / Campbell River Mirror.

Snow clearing operations for Vancouver Island’s provincial roads, including highways and rural sideroads, have been challenged by recent extreme snowfall events, but crews are working around-the-clock to clear them.

Mainroad, a company with highway snow clearing operations throughout B.C. and Alberta, holds the provincial contract for snow clearing throughout the north and mid-Island — essentially, nearly 7,000 kilometres of roads north of Duncan, from Tofino to Cortes Island. Emcon holds the contract for the Island’s south end.

During snowstorms, Mainroad operates with all available resources, said Chris Cowley, the company’s North Island general manager.

“Our operators during these events are usually working 12-hour shifts, and their equipment is moving around the clock,” said Cowley. “Anything we have access to is moving.”

Cowley said recent snowfall events have been “extraordinary.”

“We see events like this pretty rarely,” he said. “In ‘96 we had a similar scenario and then in ‘71 — it’s not very common.”

The company operates on a six-level priority basis (from “A” to “F” priority roads), with major highways, such as Highway 19, being the highest priority (priority “A”).

“While it’s snowing, we will be focused on those roads and keeping them clear,” he said. “When the snow stops, we’ll tidy them up and start moving down the list.”

On the priority list, “B” roads are main arteries, “C” roads are school bus routes, and “D” routes are side roads.

“We get the ‘D’ roads last, which some people wish we got to a little sooner,” he said. “But the reality is we have to work down the list of priorities — that’s the main goal for us in every event. The time it takes to get to a side road is indicative of the time it takes to clear everything else first.”

It is difficult for the company to estimate when they are able to clear a road down the priority list, because the company starts back at the top of the priority list each time it snows.

“As we’ve seen lately, if it starts snowing again, the clock resets and we head back to the ‘A’ routes,” said Cowley. “That causes an issue for some people — our inability to get to their roads as soon as they would like.”

Despite reports that some stores are low in commercial ice melter and salt, Mainroad reports it is still well-stocked.

“We don’t have a supply issue for salt at all,” said Cowley, who noted Mainroad is also a supplier of road salt.

In many cases, rather than salt, sand is used instead because areas that are salted are susceptible to refreeze. The company however deploys salt brine, which helps plowing by stopping snow from bonding to the underlying ice layer, he said.

The company’s resources are designed around average events — meaning extreme events stretch their resources.

“In these extraordinary times, we just appreciate everyone being patient,” he said. “We will get there when we can, and we’re sparing no resources, that’s for sure.”

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