The highway camera on Sutton Pass remained down on Tuesday afternoon, three weeks after a lightning strike obliterated the radio receiver it relies on to operate.
The ministry of transportation and infrastructure’s acting camera program manager Pete Taylor told the Westerly News lightning hits repeater sites throughout B.C. about three times a year, but the hit the Porter Mountain site received on Nov. 16 was significantly more powerful than is usually seen.
“They’re generally not this intense. Talking to the techs, this is the most violent destruction they’ve seen in 20 years. It was a pretty profound thing,” Taylor said. “This one was apparently a direct hit and it pretty much just blew it to smithereens.”
Looks like our #BCHwy4 #SuttonPass cam will be down longer than expected.
Crews got up to the summit during a break in the weather this weekend and found the repeater site has sustained a direct hit from a lightning strike. See it before and after below. #PortAlberni #Tofino pic.twitter.com/nonKhdBu6y
— BC Transportation (@TranBC) November 30, 2020
A technician team was able to access the site by helicopter on Dec. 2 and install a new repeater system, but the transmission did not immediately catch. Taylor said the crew planned to visit the site again, but the work is extremely weather dependent as the site can only be reached by helicopter.
“It is super precarious, there’s enough room for the helicopter to kind of land on a slope,” he said.
“Often it’s weeks of waiting for a break in the weather to get up there. It can be a little sketchy at times, so we really try to ensure safety…We don’t want to put people in harm’s way.”
He added that he appreciates people contacting him when a camera is down and he understands the frustrations felt by commuters unable to see the road ahead.
“Sometimes people get a little bit wound up about it and I totally understand because you want to see what’s going on on the highway, you want to know it’s safe, you don’t want to leave and get stuck in something,” he said.
The Sutton Pass camera was installed around 2011 and is the only one of its kind on Vancouver Island due to the absence of cell service in the area.
“It has no power, it has no cell service, so we use solar power and we use a radio to connect with this mountaintop radio repeater site, which then bumps the signal over to another repeater site that’s within cell range,” he said.
He added that the camera is important because Highway 4 conditions can be vastly different each half-kilometre.
“Places like Sutton Pass have, kind of, their own weird microclimate…It’s very important and not only for the public, but also for the road maintenance guys who have to do the snow clearing to see what’s going on. So, they went to some extraordinary lengths to actually make this happen,” he said.
“We don’t have great connectivity from Port Alberni out to the West Coast and that is a source of frustration, so we do have to go through some extraordinary lengths and unfortunately it does cause some reliability issues…The problem is, of course, that it’s a much more tenuous connection between the camera to the repeater site and onto the cell network. If anything breaks on that chain of communication, the camera stops working.”
The province’s camera program began about 15 years ago and started out as a way for highway crews to check road conditions at high elevation points throughout the province, like the Coquihala, Malahat and Sutton Pass, according to Taylor.
He said the camera crew quickly realized the program would benefit commuters as well, so the images began being published publicly and the program grew.
Taylor said about 30 cameras are added every year and as of October 2020 there were about 450 cameras throughout the province, including about 65 on Vancouver Island.
He said the program has been well received by motorists as well as commercial trucking companies, though specific data around how many views each camera gets is tough to calculate as the video feeds are streamed through several sites.
“Getting those metrics around it is pretty difficult,” he said
He added though that feedback storms in when the Sutton Pass camera goes down, proving residents rely on it.