British Columbia

Roads to nowhere: Rural drivers stopped dead by slides, washouts in the Cariboo

Several rural roads in the Quesnel area have been closed by landslides, mudslides, and washouts. Should precarious roads be rebuilt?

'There's no bulldozer that's going to fix that': Quesnel mayor

The road to this bridge on the West Fraser Road south of Quesnel was washed away by high waters in the creek. (Steve Anderson/Contributed)

Washouts, mudslides and landslides have closed several back roads in the Quesnel area this spring. 

The damage has forced drivers to turn back on routes where roads buckled or were blocked by debris. But some local people, like Steve Anderson, have hiked in to see the damage for themselves.

"Things are still moving, things are still shifting," said Anderson, after he clambered over fallen trees and climbed up steep slopes along West Fraser Road, south of Quesnel. 

After hearing about high water and boulders bashing a bridge, he wanted to check on the creek below, where he'd learned to swim as a boy.

One of Anderson's ancestors led the crew that built the bridge over the creek, and, according to family lore, he'd insisted on the sturdiest bridge pilings, even though they were more expensive.

Now, years later, the bridge was still standing. But the road leading to the bridge had vanished.

Once well used by a community of 250 people, West Fraser Road now ends precipitously where it's collapsed into a creek south of Quesnel. A new road in an alternate location is scheduled to be complete in 2022. (Kevin Toews/Contributed )

"The road is in the creek somewhere," said Anderson, a 24-year-old heavy duty mechanic apprentice, who said he was amazed by the damage.

"It's like the whole mountain came down," he said. "It's sad to see how much the earth had actually moved." 

'The entire mountainside moved'

This recent road collapse Anderson witnessed was just the latest in a series of problems on West Fraser Road.

In 2018, washouts took out several parts of  the road, leaving blacktop hanging in mid-air in one section. Much of the route has been closed to traffic ever since, forcing about 250 people to take a lengthy detour that adds hours to their commute and the school bus route. 

A car still stuck in the mud along West Fraser Road was trapped during washouts and slides in 2018. (Steve Anderson/Contributed )

The Ministry of Transportation is now building an alternative route for West Fraser Road in a different location. It will cost more than $100 million and take several years.

Elsewhere in the Quesnel area, several rural roads have recently been closed indefinitely, including Quesnel Hydraulic Road, blocked by a landslide that brought down large trees. The official detour is a forestry road bordered by slash, a route so rough and muddy, it's popular with ATV riders.

Locals check out the landslide across Quesnel Hydraulic Road, southeast of Quesnel. Transportation officials say the route is closed due to a washout and 'ongoing land instability.' (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

'A creek can take out an entire road'

Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson says there are no easy answers when it comes to "problematic" roads.  

"As you see,  a creek can take out the entire road.  There's no bulldozer that's going to fix that," said Simpson.

Quesnel's mayor says most of the region's roads were built along the banks of creeks and rivers. When water rises, the banks erode and give way, he said. 

Simpson says trees killed by wildfires and pine beetles mean more surface water is running off, especially during heavy rains. 

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said a high snowpack, long winter and the rapid spring snowmelt also affected the high water levels in the Cariboo region.

The result is reshaping some local landscapes, but the damage is not confined to the Cariboo.

The detour around the Quesnel Hydraulic Road landslide is a rough logging road, popular with ATVers. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

'Hotbed for landslides'

"B.C. is a hotbed for landslides," said Brett Gilley, a senior instructor in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia, who has taught geology for 20 years.

"The slopes, the high rainfall, the multiple triggers, there are lots of landslides.," said Gilley. "We then complicate things by building roads."

The detour route for the Quesnel Hydraulic slide is so rough, it's a popular track for mud-bogging ATVers. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC News )

Quesnel's mayor says tough decisions need to be made about whether damaged roads are fixed, decommissioned or rebuilt in more stable locations.

"Do you really want to go back and invest in a road that has already blown out multiple times?  Just to have it blown out again?" Simpson asked.

"Those are things that people are not interested in," he said. "They just want a road that they can drive on to get wherever they want to go."

Flood damage on West Fraser Road south of Quesnel in 2018. (Submitted by Steve Sarjola)

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

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