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A Deadly Wake-Up Call for BC

Experts say government must act now to avoid preventable landslide and flood deaths and damage. The problems go beyond climate change.

Ben Parfitt 1 Jun 2022Policy Note

Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ B.C. office. This article originally appeared in Policy Note.

As 2021 drew to a close, Premier John Horgan said many British Columbians would remember it “as the year that climate change arrived on our doorsteps.”

Whether it was the wildfires that made breathing the air a risk and wiped the town of Lytton off the map, or the unrelenting heat in June and early July that claimed 600 or more lives, or the mid-November rains, floods and landslides that killed at least six people, destroyed homes, farms and businesses and wiped away entire sections of highways and dikes, 2021 was memorable for the chaos unleashed by climatic events.

But is it right to ascribe all the devastation to climate change and climate change alone?

Yes, more extreme weather appears to be here. And yes, scientists have warned for decades to brace for more as we continue our collective assault on the Earth’s atmosphere by relentlessly burning fossil fuels.

But climate change alone did not kill Anita and Mirsad Hadzic on Nov. 15, leaving their two-year-old infant daughter an orphan when their car was smashed by a thundering wall of mud, rock and shattered trees on the Duffey Lake Road.

Nor is it solely responsible for the death of three others who were unfortunate enough to be on that lonely stretch of road with the Hadzics that night.

Where the buck stops

The “atmospheric river” that dumped heavy rain on southwest B.C. on Nov. 14 and 15 may have been the proximate cause, or trigger, of the landslide that took those five lives, but the underlying cause was 730 metres up the mountainside on an abandoned logging road that was not properly deactivated and failed.

Climate change didn’t cause the landslide. Bad land use practices did.

To learn more about the devastating landslide and other related risks, the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reached out to geoscientists and engineers both active and retired, and all with some experience working in or for the provincial government.

All three say that while climate change is a clear threat, the more pressing issue is how the government, and in particular the Ministry of Forests, manages key natural resources. They also say that simple things can be done now to set us on a better path:

Failure to do such things, they warn, only courts more death, injury and loss.

‘It was not a good place to be’

It is unlikely that most motorists on the Duffey Lake Road, or any other highway for that matter, know that aging logging roads may be just a short distance away and hidden from view, or that such roads pose risks to those below, especially in mountainous settings.

The Hadzics were on one such road not by choice but necessity. The day before, they had learned that three highways were blocked, preventing passage to the populous Lower Mainland. Mudslides and flooding had rendered the Coquihalla Highway between Merritt and Hope, Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon, and Highway 3 from Hope to Princeton impassable.

That left only the Duffey Lake Road, or Highway 99. The narrow, winding road with its sharp ascents and descents was originally a logging road that later was updated to a highway and features on the website Dangerous Roads.

Long-time friends Rob Graham and Brad Beggs were among those on the road that day. The men recall that the further they drove from Lillooet, the worse things got. There were rocks on the road almost everywhere and torrents of muddy water cascading off the surrounding slopes.

“It was not a good place to be,” Graham said. Eventually, they found themselves in a long line of cars forced to stop due to debris on the road up ahead. “The impending doom feeling was hanging in the air big time,” Graham recalled.

The men soon heard a “thundering noise” above them. Beggs turned the ignition, gunned the gas, cranked the steering wheel and had just enough room to swerve around and ahead of the car in front of him. Another driver in another vehicle behind them managed to do the same.

The people behind them were hit by the landslide. Some crawled out of cars that had been flipped upside down. Others emerged from the wall of debris “covered head to toe in mud.”

“All you saw was their eyes, their mouths open,” Beggs said, adding that he will “never forget” the terrifying speed and sound of the landslide.

Inspection and spending shortfalls

Ron Jordens was studying to be an engineer at the University of British Columbia in 1965 when he landed a summer job with the BC Forest Service surveying the road to Gold River on Vancouver Island. The road was later taken over by the Ministry of Highways as a public highway.

“At that time, the Forest Service engineering division was very operational, involved in the planning, location, survey, design and construction of main roads,” says Jordens, who would go on to work for the ministry for more than 30 years. “We had a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills to plan, locate, survey, design and maintain fairly high-standard roads, almost but not quite to the standard of highways.”

The road Jordens helped survey was at the time a forest service road, or FSR. They are the most frequently travelled of all logging roads and additionally are sometimes the only vehicular access into remote communities. They are also the most heavily engineered of logging roads. Today, there are more than 58,000 kilometres of such roads in B.C. — enough to circle the world almost one-and-a-half times.

But it is one thing to build such roads, and a different matter to maintain them.

B.C.’s auditor general found in 2020 that the ministry “did not manage safety and environmental risks on FSRs in accordance with its policies,” and that it also did not properly maintain and repair roads and crossing structures such as bridges and major culverts. Many bridge and culvert inspections weren’t done. Of those that were, half turned up problems that required repairs. But chronic ministry underfunding, averaging $35 million per year, meant that two years or more after problems were identified they still were not fixed.

Even more problematic are hundreds of thousands of kilometres of “resource roads.” These less travelled roads may experience steady truck traffic for a time before being largely abandoned. The road that failed, killing the Hadzics, was one such road.

In 2015, the Forest Practices Board, B.C.’s independent forest watchdog, estimated that more than 600,000 kilometres of such roads existed. Today, that number is closer to 700,000, or enough roads to circle the Earth 17 times.

“Where these roads occur on steep slopes, they can cause landslides,” the board noted, adding that the frequency of landslides increases tenfold in logged areas, and that virtually all such landslides are associated with logging roads that fail, especially in steeper terrain.

The highly critical report noted that the government’s resource road inventory was 20 years out of date. The government effectively had no information on an estimated 200,000 kilometres of such roads. Worse, many roads identified by the industry as deactivated were either insufficiently deactivated or not deactivated at all.

A ‘wake-up call’ on resource road safety

In a self-described “wake-up call” published two years later, the board reported on 26 different road segments it examined in steep terrain. In 21 cases, a “qualified registered professional” had been involved in the road design or construction. Yet the board found:

The board said this underscored the need for stepped-up provincial compliance and enforcement efforts to ensure public and environmental health and safety.

Jordens is not surprised by such findings. He remembers hearing the following definition of a perfectly constructed logging road early in his career.

“From a logging point of view, you want to spend the least amount of money for the road that will provide you sufficient access to your last load of logs. The best road is the road that falls apart after you get your last load of logs out.”

Government oversight must be there to counter industry cost-cutting, Jordens says. But effective oversight is today largely absent. Twenty years ago, the government replaced the much more prescriptive Forest Practices Code Act with the Forest and Range Practices Act, ushering in a new era of “professional reliance.”

The professional reliance free-for-all

“What professional reliance meant was that if a logging company delivered a plan that was signed by a professional, that’s all the ministry needed to see,” Jordens says. “Cut block and road location planning in the forest was not left up to the ministry. It was left up to the industry and ‘reliance on professionals,’ who normally were not in charge of the road building and logging activities on a day-to-day basis.”

“It makes me wonder if what is on the approved plan is actually being followed on the ground and is there a mechanism that satisfies Forest Service staff that the conditions of the plan were followed.”

In May 2018, lawyer Mark Haddock submitted a report on professional reliance to George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change policy.

Haddock had spent years prior working as an environmental lawyer in non-profit and academic settings as well as at the Forest Practices Board.

In his report, Haddock noted many concerns with the professional reliance regime including how it applied to the Forest and Range Practices Act. His conclusion was that it placed public servants on a reactive rather than proactive footing because so little information was actually transmitted to the government by the logging industry before developments occurred.

Haddock noted, for example, that Forest Stewardship Plans submitted to the government by logging companies were exceedingly broad and covered large areas of land — in the most extreme cases, two times the size of Vancouver Island. Absent from such plans were specific details on where new roads and logging cut blocks were to be located.

What the act did, Haddock said, was place “high levels of dependence” on professionals outside of government to make key decisions. Government engineers were effectively cut out of approving where roads and cut blocks were located and a reduced complement of ministry compliance and enforcement staff left to monitor such developments after the fact.

“It took away the ability of ministry professionals to identify or review problems associated with harvesting activities on unstable or sensitive slopes and resolve those problems before the industry went into those areas,” Jordens says. “Roads are the worst culprits when it comes to sedimentation, debris torrents and landslides, particularly on the coast. If we want to manage, conserve and protect our forests — which is what we are supposed to do under the Ministry of Forests Act — we need to retain control because it’s questionable whether the current model of professional reliance can achieve that.”

‘I just had this gut feeling’

During a press conference on Nov. 15, as the scale of flood-related damage became more apparent, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was asked about the plight of motorists stranded on highways cut off by landslides.

“Landslides, as you know, are unpredictable, and they happen,” Farnworth said.

But two professionals with expertise in landslides and road failures say that landslides and improperly built or decommissioned logging roads go hand in hand, and that tragic outcomes like those on the Duffey Lake Road are the result.

A mudslide covers a road. Beyond the mudslide, cars and people are lined up alongside a yellow emergency vehicle.
Tonnes of mud, broken trees and rock carpet Highway 99 last November after a landslide that engineers say was triggered by a failed logging road. Photo via BC Ministry of Transportation Flickr.

Pierre Friele is a professional geoscientist with 30-years experience in the forest sector, predominantly in the South Coast Forest Region, where he has worked under contract to the Ministry of Forests out of its Squamish office. Friele suspected almost immediately that those killed on the road late last year died because a logging road high above them failed.

“I just had this gut feeling,” Friele said. “So I got this local avalanche guy who was doing a flight to take some pictures.”

When the avalanche expert returned with the photographs, Friele said his suspicion was confirmed.

The aerial evidence was not enough for Friele, however. Eight days after the deaths, he elected to walk into the remote area before further rain or snow altered evidence of what happened. “I’m the only person who has seen it up close,” he says.

What Friele found was that the road had been only partially deactivated. Deactivation can include many things such as breaking up the road surface to disperse water runoff during the winter season; or, where regular use is not required for several years, by removing culverts and installing cross ditches; or in the case when a road is no longer required for industrial use, by removing all culverts and bridges, and pulling back fill slopes in steep terrain. Such work, if done promptly and properly, reduces the risks of future landslides.

While there was evidence that culverts had been pulled out and cross ditches had been cut through the road surface to restore more natural water flows, much of the massive amount of rock and soil pushed to the roadside during road construction, known as fill slope, remained unaddressed, Friele found.

And that was a problem, because over the years that untouched mass of earth and rock began to gradually fail in increments. Several small failures resulted in sections of ditch lining the old road becoming blocked. The blockages then caused water to flow onto the road surface in ways that weakened it, causing the fill slope to eventually fail.

Because the road was abandoned, “these small slides and the associated water misalignment were never identified and corrected,” Friele concluded, adding that failure to deactivate the road properly before it was abandoned led ultimately to the fatal disaster.

In a report he subsequently wrote on his findings in the field, Friele said “failures on legacy forest service roads are common enough that those of us practising in the forest sector have been called to forensically investigate a number of them during our careers. Luckily, fatalities have been few, until this recent event, which has brought the issue to the fore.”

Foreseeable and preventable

Calvin VanBuskirk is a professional engineer, and 30-plus year member of the Engineers and Geoscientists of BC. Like Friele, he too suspected that the Duffey Lake slide was not a natural event.

Shortly after the slide, he reviewed aerial images from the University of British Columbia’s air photo library. The images showed that the logging road had been built in the 1960s and abandoned in the 1990s. The photos also suggested that the road had altered natural drainage patterns, redirecting water onto marginally stable areas that were prone to failure.

In a letter he subsequently sent to Farnworth, Forests Minister Katrine Conroy and Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Rob Fleming, VanBuskirk did not mince words.

“It is my professional opinion that the Nov. 15, 2021, tragic, fatal landslide event northeast of Duffy Lake on Highway 99 was both foreseeable and preventable.”

“The landslide initiated on a resource (logging) road constructed in the late 1960s.... It appears that the road was not deactivated and has not been inspected or maintained for decades.... Had this area been subject to inspections/monitoring, the potential for this landslide could have been detected and appropriate measures… implemented to manage the landslide risk.”

Adding weight to VanBuskirk’s conclusions is a work record that includes years spent in the field doing landslide hazard and risk assessments on resource roads for numerous forest companies including Riverside, Canfor, Bell Pole, Tolko and Interfor, as well as work for the provincial Forests Ministry and its timber-auctioning arm, BC Timber Sales.

In 2003, VanBuskirk co-authored a technical report for the Ministry of Forests that examined the underlying causes behind a spectacular occurrence of 66 landslides over a three-day period in June 1990. The devastation occurred in an extensively logged area east of Enderby. An estimated $8 million in damage occurred due to debris hitting homes, vehicles, hydro transmission structures, water intakes and a section of highway.

Of note, the area studied was only equivalent to about seven Stanley Parks in size yet was crisscrossed by at least 100 kilometres of aging logging roads.

VanBuskirk and fellow geoscientist Freeman Smith concluded that the likely cause of most of the slides was “drainage diversions.” In other words, water that was forced to flow in unnatural ways because of the old, improperly decommissioned roads, many of which were overgrown with brush. Those unnatural flows led quite naturally to landslides.

Significantly, the duo concluded that the old Forest Practices Code, which was jettisoned in favour of today’s laissez-faire forest legislation, “would likely have prevented many of these slides.”

In addition to flagging the Fall Creek fiasco in his letter to the cabinet ministers, VanBuskirk noted that June 1990 also saw a couple and their daughter in the Kelowna area killed by a mudslide following heavy rainfall.

That same summer heavy rainfalls triggered a mudslide near Vavenby that killed one man and led to the deaths of four tree planters when their vehicle plunged off of a washed-out wooden bridge into the swollen waters of George Creek, southeast of Prince George.

At-risk highway corridors across BC

Like VanBuskirk, Friele has investigated landslides. What he has seen is that a lot of old logging roads were not put to bed the way they should be. And now, the government has a big problem on its hands.

“We end up with this situation where the companies didn’t fully deactivate but the government didn’t really oversee the system properly. And they’ve now taken over the land,” Friele says. “Now it’s the government’s problem.”

Fortunately, for the province, many landslides triggered at old logging roads are far removed from human populations. But as the deaths at Duffey Lake underscore, logging roads can come very close to highways and vulnerable communities.

That’s why Friele advocates a targeted, proactive approach to reducing landslide risks. If he was making the call, he would prioritize highway corridors.

“Above Highway 1, in the Hope-Chilliwack area, there’s roads that are above the highway on the south side. The Trans-Canada Highway is constantly getting blocked. And a lot of those mudflows are related to old logging roads. And nobody’s been killed there. It’s quite amazing. There are mudslides almost every time it rains.”

The damage unleashed by last November’s heavy two-day downpour extended well beyond old logging roads to major highways used by tens of thousands of motorists every day as well as less frequently travelled city and suburban streets.

Like logging roads, more frequently travelled roads are highly vulnerable to damage by water, which is why the design, location, inspection and upgrading of critical drainage infrastructure like culverts is so important.

One of the less high-profile roads to fail last November was Chalet Road on the Saanich Peninsula near Victoria, not far from VanBuskirk’s home. A commuter travelling the road that morning had driven through about 20 centimetres of water flowing over the road at a creek crossing. By the time she got to work and phoned the municipality to alert them, the road section was gone.

Three months later, VanBuskirk travelled to the site to explain what had happened. Ducking below a line of yellow warning tape, he walked to the edge of the deep trench that severed the roadway. Typically, the creek below ran through a small 800 millimetre culvert underneath the road, VanBuskirk explained.

Engineer Calvin VanBuskirk stands on black landscape fabric. A pile of rocks has been placed over the landscape fabric in the mid-section of the picture.
Engineer Calvin VanBuskirk at site of a road in Saanich on southern Vancouver Island that washed out during November’s storms. There’s a 'tremendous disregard for how powerful water is and for the speed at which things can be swept away,' he says. Photo by Ben Parfitt.

But as the rains fell last November, the creek level rose rapidly to four metres, or five times the height of the culvert. With the culvert overwhelmed, the only thing holding back the rising wall of water was the roadbed itself, which had effectively become a dam. But the road hadn’t been built to be a dam and it failed.

“When the road embankment gave way, it sent a wall of water down that channel that was estimated to be 30 feet wide and up to 10 feet deep. And it plucked chunks of rock off the bedrock surface — I measured one that was 18 inches thick, two-and-a-half-feet wide and just under five feet long — and thrust it up into the trees. It was really impressive,” VanBuskirk said.

“What’s going on with logging roads, with culverts, with highways, with streets, with everything, is, unfortunately, a tremendous disregard for how powerful water is and for the speed at which things can be swept away.”

VanBuskirk, who has been hired to design the new creek crossing on Chalet Road, will be replacing that small culvert with a geotextile, reinforced soil arch that is more than four metres wide at its base (over five times that of the existing culvert) in anticipation of the heavy rains and high water flows that will inevitably come.

“An enormous amount of water can flow through a culvert. But when there’s more water than the culvert can handle, that’s when it becomes a problem. That’s when it washes out,” he says.

Time for action

Friele, Jordens and VanBuskirk all say that one takeaway from last November is that government needs to arm itself with relevant information and then act. Where will more slides likely occur? What culverts and bridges may be most vulnerable? What repairs or reclamation needs to be done?

“Let’s take a look. Let’s fly these drainages and see where these landslides initiated,” Jordens says. “Let’s take a helicopter flight and go right to the source. Where did these landslides start? And if they started at old roads or in logged-over areas, how can we improve our practices?”

Helicopter flying is expensive, but sometimes necessary. Other technologies exist, however, that are relatively cheap and can provide valuable information quickly over large areas.

“We have tools in our toolbox that have come about in the last 10 to 20 years and they are very economical as well,” VanBuskirk says. “One of them is LiDAR, which is the airborne mapping system that you can use where you can pick up extremely detailed topographic information for basically a buck or so a hectare or less. The Province of Alberta has done their entire province. B.C., from what I can see, has very little of the province covered.”

VanBuskirk would also like to see the government use LiDAR data to help produce “detailed topographic and flow accumulation maps” that can be used to identify where the greatest landslide risks are.

“The cost of this work is likely much less than the costs of the resource road-related damage caused by this single landslide event on Highway 99,” he adds.

Rehabilitating lands damaged by previous logging and road-building activities will be expensive. However, it is something that the government has spent money on in the past, and the results strongly suggest that it was money well spent.

In the 1990s, under the direction of the now defunct Crown corporation Forest Renewal BC, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on “watershed restoration” projects following logging. Significantly, it was the logging industry that ultimately paid for that work, through higher timber-cutting or stumpage fees imposed on them by the government.

Between 1994 and 1999, a total of $302 million was spent on restoration work, much of it involving road deactivation — work that both improved water flows in damaged valleys, thus benefiting salmon and other species, and made things safer.

“Both the government and companies were identifying old road systems and having them deactivated,” Friele says of those years. “There was a huge program of deactivation that went on for close to a decade. And then the Liberal government came in and just canned everything.”

Since then, successive governments have failed to restore such funding, meaning the costs of rehabilitating roads like those that killed the Hadzics last November are rising.

Government either bites the bullet now and recommences that work — or risks more preventable tragedies ahead.  [Tyee]

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