Summer fires could impact winter road conditions

Flooded roads, rocks on highways and rural landslides may become a forecast feature in the upcoming months.

Flooded roads, rocks on highways and rural landslides may become a forecast feature in the upcoming months.

The West Kootenay region is at increased risk for perilous conditions this winter and spring following a summer of forest fires that destroyed Mother Nature’s natural anchors.

“The whole mountainside has been compromised by the wildfires,” explained Ken Lawson, Emcon’s Kootenay Boundary division manager. “That means we lost a lot of the natural anchor that would hold the snow. And we are not sure how the heat is going to affect the rocks, because some of the areas have been heated and that could potentially loosen the rocks.”

In August, a large fire in the Paulson Pass decimated 320 hectares of foliage as well as the ministry’s avalanche weather station.

Crews from Emcon Services and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure recently dug out 3,000 metres of soil west of the Paulson Bridge and constructed a large catchment area.

“That was strictly to try to catch or slow down rocks or snow that could potentially come down,” Lawson confirmed. “The weather station is being replaced, and avalanche techs with the ministry are monitoring the area with the change of terrain.”

He said another area of concern, especially when the snow melts, is Rock Creek. Almost 4,500 hectares went up in flames three months ago, leaving the region in a hygroscopic state.

Hygroscopy refers to the ability of a substance to attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment. In the case of wildfire, that means the loss of vegetation and tree root systems has significantly impacted water absorption and retention.

“So the other issue we are going to have in Rock Creek as well as the Paulson, is the water runoff is going to change because of the burnt soils,” Lawson explained. “It’s not going to retain the moisture it used to so we are expecting larger runoffs and more materials to move with the water. So there is potential for the over-running of drainage systems and flooding of highways.”

Emcon has completed proactive measures such as ensuring all highways culverts are clear, in tandem with the usual seasonal duties of stockpiling sand and having snowplows, graders and extra crews ready-to-go.

“We are doing everything we can, but again, we don’t know the type of winter and type of spring we will get,” said Lawson.

The El Nino phenomenon is also throwing a wrench into the works, because weather experts are calling for a warmer winter than usual.

“There is no recipe for what’s going to happen,” said Lawson, recalling the winter of 1997 when El Nino increased precipitation and upped normal temperatures. “There could be more rain, more snow, or it could even be drier depending on where the jet steam gets pushed through and where it’s going to affect. Nobody knows that yet.” he added. “But we are preparing for some drainage issues.”

Lawson reminds drivers to shift into winter, travel safe, and check the DriveBC website for updates.

This year’s winter forecast is based on the strong influence El Nino has on western North America. The term itself refers to a massive patch of warm water than appears in the Equatorial Pacific every few years, affecting weather patterns across the world.