British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

Remembering the West Coast snowstorm of '96

People living on B.C.'s South Coast may think they've had it bad this week as snow caused chaos throughout the region, twice in the same week — but it's nothing compared to what walloped the West Coast 20 years ago.

Snow blanketed the South Coast, engulfing major cities and leaving people stranded

The worst snowstorm on record hit B.C.'s South Coast in 1996, shutting down entire cities. 4:06

People living on B.C.'s South Coast may think they've had it bad this week as snow caused chaos throughout the region, twice in the same week — but it's nothing compared to what walloped the West Coast 20 years ago. 

On Dec. 29, 1996, an Arctic system combined with a wet front to cause B.C.'s worst snowstorm in a region unaccustomed to a stereotypical Canadian winter. 

It was the heaviest snowfall since records were kept in 1937.

In Vancouver, 35 centimetres of the fluffy white stuff hit the streets in 24 hours, resulting in a now-familiar transit shutdown and general traffic pandemonium, as the city's 16 snow removal and sanding trucks fought a losing battle. 

At the Vancouver International Airport, most flights were cancelled because de-icing crews couldn't keep up  — the snowfall rate was so severe that by time they finished one side of the plane, the other was covered again.

Crews quickly began to clear the dome of B.C. Place when they noticed the roof was starting to sag. 

Snow was waist-deep in Victoria after the West Coast snowstorm of 1996 hit in late December. (CBC)

'It was kind of fun'

The situation was worse in the Fraser Valley, where the snow shut down Highway 1. Hundreds of drivers were left stranded in and around Chilliwack and were forced to find temporary shelter. 

Leslie Ryan was living in Mission at the time, and her parents had come over from Victoria for a quick visit. 

They ended up staying for a week. 

"We were snowed in for several days. We couldn't get out of the house. Luckily, we had lots of provisions," Ryan said. 

"Actually, it was kind of fun ... There's nothing you can do about it, so you may as well make the best of it." 

Ryan said she and her guests knew better than to drive anywhere, so that week they watched TV, played board games and backgammon and reminisced about the past instead. 

'An out-of-this-world experience'

But Victoria had it the worst — bewildered residents of the Capital city woke up to 65 centimetres of snow that had fallen overnight. 

"It was an out-of-this-world experience," said Bruce Kirkpatrick, a CHEK news reporter. 

CHEK News reporter Bruce Kirkpatrick at his home in Victoria in 1996. (CBC)

"It was just amazing. I stepped out the front door and I couldn't go anywhere because the snow was almost up to my chest."

Kirkpatrick says snow had steadily been falling over the past few days and there was already a foot of snow on the ground, but it hit hard the night of Dec. 29. 

His wife was five months pregnant at the time, and they realized emergency vehicles wouldn't have been able to get to the house should anything happen.

"You hope for the best," he said. "What can you do? You wait it out."

Meet the neighbours!

Two days later, everyone in his neighbourhood were given shovels to clear their streets to the closest main road. 

The city simply didn't have the resources to deal with all the snow, and the province had to call in the military to help. 

"You get to know your neighbours really well in a snowstorm," Kirkpatrick said. 

"What stood out to me was the public's involvement. You know there were ambulances stuck and people were out pushing them."

Several roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow, damaging buildings throughout the region.

As the weather warmed up over the next few days, the snow did finally begin to melt — making flooding a more pressing concern. 

With files from All Points West