British Columbia

Why parts of Hwy 1 in the Lower Mainland have become a 'sheet of black ice'

Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford is being described as treacherous by drivers, after a series of accidents affecting both east and west lanes.

Many accidents, 'white-knuckle driving' reported as ministry struggles to keep Trans Canada clear

Snow clearing on certain highways in Metro Vancouver, including Highway 1, are the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, but the rest are the responsibility of cities. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Drivers experiencing Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, B.C., this week are describing the stretch as treacherous, with sudden snowstorms leading to a series of accidents as the ministry of transportation struggles in "challenging" conditions to keep the route clear.

Environment Canada meteorologists said there was a "flash freeze" on the stretch during the first in a series of winter storms Sunday afternoon, which created an "ice sheet" on the highway five to eight centimetres thick.

The sheet has stayed intact due to persistent freezing temperatures.

"That sheet of ice, despite best attempts at sanding and salting, has not gone anywhere," said meteorologist Matt MacDonald, who was in a car crash himself after taking the road on Sunday.

The stretch has seen several stalls, spin-offs, jack-knifed semis and fender-benders since Monday, some of which have led to gridlock on the major route through the Lower Mainland.

The ice has made the freeway simply "dangerous," according to drivers.

Traffic officials and the province are urging people to slow down and say they should expect delays.

Evan Shindle, who runs Arctic Snow Removal, a Burnaby-based snow removal and salting company for businesses across the Lower Mainland, said his employees — including some experienced drivers from Saskatchewan — refused to take the freeway Tuesday, even in their four-by-four work vehicles.

"It's a sheet of black ice," he said.

"I had two trucks turn around on Highway 1 and refuse to drive," said Shindle, who has been in the business for decades. "I had another truck that did make it and he said it was the most scary thing he's done in a long time."

Why is the highway not being cleared?

Snow clearing on certain highways in Metro Vancouver, including Highway 1, are the jurisdiction of the B.C. government.

The Ministry of Transportation has said contractors have been working overnight to try to melt the ice on the roadway.

But temperatures dipping below –15 C and strong winds have made it difficult to get road treatments to melt or add friction to the ice to make it safer to drive over, South Coast regional director Ashok Bhatti said.

The high winds have blown some of the salts and sand off the highway, he said.

"We are using calcium chloride and a combination of techniques, but it has been challenging," Bhatti said.

"I've had teams from our ministry personally driving those roads ahead of commuter traffic," he said. "We are hitting it with everything we've got."

Abbotsford Mayor Harry Braun said he knows the ministry has its hands full, but contracts exist for a reason and all parties have to adhere.

"I'm assuming there are measurements and KPI's (key performance indicators) they have to meet and bare pavement in 24 hours, I say, if that's in there, that hasn't happened," said Braun Wednesday on The Early Edition.

Why does wet snow make matters worse?

Bhatti said the West Coast gets very wet snow, which is even more difficult to drive over.

He said the snow hits the colder road surface and refreezes.

He described how that creates unique problems like compaction or "ice shelving," making the snow more difficult to plow away.

"Once those conditions start to persist, it is more difficult to try to address that," he said.

What can drivers do?

Drivers have been asked to avoid the highway altogether if travel is not absolutely essential.

"I can't emphasize enough: It's not worth it heading out there on the roads, unless you absolutely need to," said MacDonald.

Bhatti urged drivers to slow down and take care.

He said accidents that need attention and clean-up have slowed the application of road treatment and blocked road-clearing vehicles from doing much-needed work — so, every mishap makes the road a little more dangerous.


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award (2017). Got a tip?