A 17-day road closure caused by a wildfire at Cameron Bluffs last month cost West Coast businesses nearly $50 million in lost revenue, according to the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Hwy. 4 near Port Alberni was closed for a total of 17 days between June 6-23, cutting off the main point of access to Ucluelet, Tofino and other West Coast communities while crews on the ground battled the wildfire.
Surveys were completed by local businesses during the closure and the results show Tofino businesses lost an estimated $29.7 million and Ucluelet businesses reported losses of $14 million.
“We thank the BC Wildfire Service and all those who worked tirelessly to control the fire and reopen the highway as quickly as possible. We also wish to thank local residents and agencies for coming together during this incident and supporting local businesses during this difficult time,” the Tofino chamber said through a July 11 announcement.
“Nevertheless, the impact of the severe reduction in tourism visitation and other challenges associated with the wildfire has heavily impacted our local economies.”
The announcement adds that local businesses rely heavily on tourism and were fully staffed and stocked up for the busy season when the highway was shut down.
The Tofino chamber is calling for government support during interruptions like the highway closure and the announcement suggests, “Most of the affected businesses were not eligible for business interruption insurance or government assistance.”
It adds that seasonal staff were unable to qualify for EI during the shutdown.
“This incident highlights an oversight when it comes to supporting small businesses,” said TLBCC president Laura McDonald. “While there are emergency services for individuals, no such support mechanisms exist to help businesses weather these types of events, which can be prolonged. We would welcome a discussion with the provincial and federal governments about a disaster fund for small business.”
More closures along the highway are looming as the province has announced rock scaling work is needed as well as the removal of danger trees over the next month due to the damage caused by the wildfire.
Scheduled closures will be in effect from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Friday until mid-August with a two-hour opening to flush traffic daily between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., according to a July 12 media release.
The release adds that no closures will be scheduled on weekends, but the nature of the work means it must be done during good weather and daylight hours.
“This is a crucial step to ensure Highway 4 can fully reopen as soon as possible, end single-lane-alternating traffic, and keep goods and people moving into our western communities,” said Minister of Transportation Rob Fleming through the release.
“We know this has been a challenging time for businesses and the tourism sector on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and we thank people for their patience as we work as quickly as possible to get this main corridor safely operating at full capacity again.”
The scheduled closures were expected to begin on July 17, but high winds shut down the highway overnight from around 4 p.m. July 16 to 6:30 a.m. on July 17 and the first scheduled closure was cancelled to flush out the traffic that had built up.
Moving forward, closures are scheduled on weekdays between 9-11:30 a.m. and 1:30—5:30 p.m. Outside of the scheduled closure periods, the highway will be open to single-lane alternating traffic.
“This has been a difficult season for all of our communities, and the faster we can get Highway 4 fully reopened, the faster we can count on the travel we rely on to support people and businesses in this region,” said Mid Island - Pacific Rim Josie Osborne. “We’re grateful for the hard work of the crews who are keeping the highway and detour route safe for travel, and we continue to welcome visitors to our beautiful region of the Island.”
Ryan Wackett operates Westcoast Connect and is encouraging residents to support their local businesses this summer.
“The tourists that want to come out here are afraid that they’ll get stuck here because of those closures, so they’re just cancelling,” Wackett told the Westerly News. “A lot of people are changing their vacation plans.”
He added the closures will affect the West Coast’s busiest season as the fires began June 6 and temporary closures are expected to continue into August.
“Anything tourist based is all taking a huge hit; huge,” he said.
“I really pray for the people who have these small tourist-based businesses on the Coast…Shop local and spend local if you can to support your local small businesses that are really hurting at this time.”