Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Road Closed - Highway 63 and Fort McMurray

Today I was going to blog about the Community Image Summit 3.0 at Keyano College last week, but I've decided to defer that particular topic to Monday. I need more time to mull over some of the thoughts that came from that summit, but I also feel the need to pre-empt it to talk about something that had some very direct community impact in the last two days - the closure of highways in the north.

This isn't the first time I have lived in the north. Prior to moving here I lived in the very small town of Red Lake Ontario, a gold mining community where the highway truly ends, and there really is only one road out of town (and only one stoplight, too). In that part of northwestern Ontario bad weather is common, as are forest fires, and the tiny highway leading into the area was subject to all those things. This community, though, was far tinier than ours, with only a small airport. One grocery store, one pharmacy, one fast food joint, one place to get pet food - and it was highly, highly reliant on that one road. When closures affected that road - and they did, often, whether due to inclement weather or forest fire - it was a pretty sobering experience as you realized your isolation from the world. It was a reminder that we lived in the north, and had chosen to do so, and that along with that choice came some consequences, just as those who choose to live in other places deal with the risk of earthquake, or tornado. We were subject to the whims and mercies of mother nature - and this past week, Fort McMurray, we were reminded that we too live in the north, and are subject to those same whims and mercies.

It was a bad week for travel in the region, no doubt. Wednesday I was to travel to Lac La Biche to see my young friend and hero Nathaniel Crossley receive his QE II Diamond Jubilee Medal, but due to poor road conditions and an RCMP advisory cautioning against travel his parents and I decided not to go. We all have children to think about, and a medal, while so very special, was not good enough reason to risk any of our lives, including those precious ones of Nathaniel and his brother. And so we cancelled our plans, and stayed put. On Friday the Intrepid Junior Blogger was to travel to Edmonton for a provincial robotics competition, one she and every student on the robotics team in her school was anticipating with excitement. They have worked so hard, staying after school three nights a week for over a month to prepare - and of course the decision to not go was made due to bad weather and poor roads. And while she and her team-mates were deeply disappointed there is no doubt that the correct decision was made, as no robotics trophy is worth those precious young lives, either.

The decision made to not send the robotics team was made even before the RCMP, assessing the road conditions, decided to close Highway 63. This was an unusual move, one very rare in my experience. I've lived here over a decade and cannot recall more than a very few times when the road was closed, and not pro-actively. Road closures due to collisions - and often fatalities - are far more common here, but to close the road simply because the weather was bad and the road surface poor for travel? Virtually unheard of. And while there are those who complained and whined about this road closure, about how long it went on and how it stranded us, I want to say this, and be very clear about it:

Thank you to the RCMP and Alberta transportation for
making the brave and necessary decision to preserve our safety -
and very likely save lives.

If you think the decision to close highways is made lightly you are wrong. The government is not blind to the economic impacts, or the impact on those of us who rely on the highway. They know there will be cries from those who think it is the wrong decision, who believe they could traverse the highway safely despite road condition the RCMP describe as "treacherous". They know it will have effects on everyone trying to get into and out of the region. And that is exactly why the decision to close highways should be applauded, because it is brave to do it knowing there will be a backlash.

Look, people. Less than one year ago we sat here in this community the night after a devastating crash that claimed seven lives, destroyed several families, and impacted thousands of others. We raised one holy hell of a cry to the government, demanding they make our highways safe. We demanded they twin Highway 63, we demanded more police presence to catch those who drive unsafely, we demanded they do everything they could to save lives - and this past week they did. They looked at roads where dozens of collisions were occurring, so many and in such hazardous conditions that even tow trucks were not going to pull them out of the ditch. They assessed the potential for serious injury, or death. And then the closed the highway, erecting road blocks, and they made a tough decision.

Weather is an unpredictable beast. While it might be below freezing here with snow drifting down just two hundred kms away or so it may be considerably warmer, with rain hitting the pavement instead, freezing as it lands. Two years ago Environment Canada created the "flash freeze warning" - and this week was the first time they have ever issued it in Alberta. The roads leading into and out of this place were being described as treacherous and hazardous, and by professional drivers who travel these roadways on a regular basis. The RCMP were advising against travel, and found themselves responding to dozens of collisions (and frankly that we escaped without another fatality is a miracle I think). There needed to be a decision made to protect the lives of those who live in this region - and they made it, despite knowing it would not please everyone. They made it knowing that even if they issued a dozen travel advisories imploring people to not travel, pleading with them to stay off roads that could claim more lives, some would ignore the advisories and travel anyhow, putting their own lives in danger, and by doing so risk the lives of emergency responders, too. There are those who will always see an advisory of that sort as a mere "suggestion" against travel, and not what it is - a warning that says "ignore this and you risk lives, and not just your own".

In the very end though it all boils down to this: We can't complain about getting a highway twinned and advocate for highway safety and then complain about it being closed for safety. We have made a very effective case for twinning our highway, and we have been heard, with a commitment being made to do so by 2016. We have made a very strong case for protecting lives on that highway, demanding that the government step up to the plate and keep us safe, even if it means keeping us safe from ourselves by ticketing us for bad driving behaviour. We have insisted on all those measures to ensure our safety - and just this past week we felt a bit of a sting when they protected us once again by closing a highway to ensure that more people did not die. Can you imagine the hue and cry had they left the highway open and more people died needlessly? Can you imagine the regret and recrimination? 

People, we live in the north. That is the reality. If you doubt me look out your window at the snow and cold temperatures. We are subjected to that reality, and on occasion that means we will feel a bit isolated, with one highway closed and deemed as too hazardous to travel, and another not closed but with a strong advisory against using it. It is funny though as we are not so isolated here, with lots to entertain us, more than one grocery store and one pharmacy and one fast food joint. Yes, if the closure went on there would be some pain felt, but that is also the reality of living in the north. If you choose to live here - and it is a choice - then on occasion you may feel the downside of that decision, although a road closure to me seems a pretty tepid downside compared to the ones those who choose to live other places face. 

The headlines this weekend will read "highway closure affects thousands". What they won't say is "treacherous road claims lives" or "more deaths on Highway 63". Perhaps the best comment on this is one I steal from a friend who said "Better to hold people in Fort McMurray than in the morgue in Grassland, Lac La Biche, or Edmonton". Better to be inconvenienced than in mourning, my friends. Better to wake up to headlines that talk about the impact of a road closure than one that talks about the impact of the deaths of more people. Better to lose a few hours - even days - from our economy and lives than to lose seven more people who die on the side of a highway. Better to preserve lives than to risk them. In the final analysis I would say

better this:

Photo credit to CTV Edmonton

than this:

Photo credit to Edmonton Journal

1 comment:

  1. Amen. And again. I too want to thank the RCMP for proactively closing the road. Sometimes we all need to do a reality check and decide what's really worth risking lives for... and awards, or hockey tournaments, or one day's pay, probably don't make the cut.