Premier looks at improving Bamfield road, meeting scheduled with Huu-ay-aht next week

Eric Plummer, September 20, 2019

B.C. Premier John Horgan is scheduled to discuss upgrading the road to Bamfield with representatives from the Huu-ay-aht First Nations next week at the Union of B.C. Municipalities in Vancouver. Pictured is Horgan during last year's UBCM. (Province of British Columbia photo)

Victoria, BC — 

Premier John Horgan has vowed to improve the rugged passage to Bamfield, where two University of Victoria Students died in a bus crash Sept. 13.

The B.C. premier said work is underway with Claire Trevena, minister of Transportation and infrastructure, to improve the 85-kilometre road from Port Alberni to Bamfield.

“We’re going to be working, Claire and I, and the appropriate forest companies and the Indigenous community, to try and find a way to improve that road,” said Horgan on Thursday, Sept. 19.

For decades communities that relay on the road have been advocating for an upgrade. In November 2018 representatives from the Huu-ay-aht First Nations and the Alberni Clayoquot Regional District met with Trevena and Scott Fraser, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim, to discuss chip sealing the road, a surface solidifying by asphalt and fine aggregate. With an estimated cost of $50-75 million, no upgrades have been announced since.

But now Horgan has agreed to meet with Huu-ay-aht leaders next week at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention in Vancouver.

“We called for an immediate meeting to discuss what can be done to ensure there is a safe route for everyone travelling this road, and that meeting is going to happen next week,” said Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert Dennis Sr., who happened to come across the bus crash shortly after the vehicle left the road on the evening of Sept. 13. “It is unfortunate that it took a tragedy like we witnessed last Friday to bring about action, but we are pleased that yesterday Premier John Horgan vowed to upgrade the logging road that connects our community to Port Alberni.”

UVic biology students Emma Machado and John Geerdes, both 18, were pronounced dead at the scene after the bus left the road to fall down an embankment. Others were airlifted to hospital in Victoria.

The group was on a two-day trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, a fall trip that has been held for the last 18 years. The university plans to hold another trip in late October, but this is contingent on the review of an RCMP investigation currently underway.

“Very soon after the university was informed about the accident, we knew that we wanted to fully understand what happened,” said Gayle Gorrill, vice-president of finance and operations, in a statement from the university. “The safety of our students is extremely important to us at UVic. Whenever there are situations such as this tragedy, we need to learn from them.”

Back in 2008 a report from Roger Harris, B.C.’s forest safety ombudsman, issued a warning about the public regularly using a road that was initially intended for industrial use.

“As with many communities’ relationships with their logging roads, the Bamfield logging road is far more important, valuable and useful now to that community than when it was first constructed,” wrote Harris.

The ombudsman recommended a new public highway designation for resource roads like Bamfield Main.

The road is currently owned by forestry companies, which has made it more complicated to upgrade, according to the Ministry of Transportation. Currently the province spends at least $400,000 annually to maintain the road through a memorandum of understanding with the industrial owners of the route, including Western Forest Products.

“I have heard concerns from MLA Fraser and the Huu-ay-aht First Nations about the road,” said Minister Trevena. “Ministry officials have been looking into the issue to determine if safety improvements could be made. The situation is complex as this is a private, industrial road, operated and maintained by private companies for active forestry operations.”

Fraser, who also serves as B.C.’s minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, noted that he was “shocked and saddened” by the tragedy.

“As a father, I can only imagine the pain that John Geerdes’ and Emma Machado’s families must be going through,” he said. “I know that they and many others will want answers, and to know that steps are being taken to ensure that something like this never happens again.”