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The highway that winds through the towering Douglas fir trees of mystical Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island has a reputation for being treacherous. But few islanders anticipated the weekend accident that killed two people.

A 60-metre-tall Douglas fir, blanketed with heavy, wet Christmas snow and rotten at its base, suddenly cracked apart on Saturday morning and fell. It crushed a man and woman who were sitting in a red 2003 Pontiac Sunfire in a parking lot beside the forest.

The couple had no chance to escape and, despite the efforts of emergency crews and others, were pronounced dead at the scene.

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Cathedral Grove, part of MacMillan Provincial Park, is made up of trees that date back as far as 800 years. It attracted nearly a million tourists this year.

About 15 centimetres of snow had fallen the evening before the accident. Police said there was virtually no wind when the tree fell.

"It's very tragic," said Gillian Trumper, Liberal MLA for Alberni-Qualicum, who had been in Cathedral Grove a day earlier with friends and her dog.

Branches regularly fall off mature trees in the forest, said environmentalist Joe Foy of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, "but usually there are not people around."

The names of the deceased, who are believed to have been in their 30s, were to be released once police had notified their families. The RCMP and the B.C. Coroners Service have announced a probe.

Forest Ministry officials were not available for comment yesterday.

The accident occurred only months before the parking lot was to be relocated as part of a $2-million provincial government project to improve access to the ancient forest off Highway 4 between Parksville and Port Alberni.

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Islanders have raised concerns about the area for years, mostly related to the dangers posed by traffic on the across-island highway and because of logging. With minimal parking available at Cathedral Grove, cars and tour buses line the highway's shoulders in a seemingly endless string during peak tourist seasons. Massive logging trucks and local traffic compete for space on the road with tourists who often appear to regard it as an urban street.

More than a dozen crashes have occurred within sight of the park's information centre since 1996.

"It's a crazy road, with very heavy traffic," Ms. Trumper said. "The majority of people who live in the region know what a disaster the road is in the summer."

Ms. Trumper, a former mayor of nearby Port Alberni, said she has been working on providing more parking at Cathedral Grove for 20 years. Opposition has come from people "who do not understand the safety issues. The majority of people who travel the road know the problems and realize that something has to be done."

Mike Stini, a Port Alberni resident who has been involved with issues related to Cathedral Grove for 15 years, said many trees have fallen in the area over the years, but this was the first time he had heard of anyone being killed.

Usually, the biggest problem has been trees that fall and block the highway. He blamed logging on the adjacent land for most such occurrences. Twenty years ago, logging companies cut up to the edge of the park, exposing the ancient growth to heavy winds that create areas of "blow-down," he said.

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"It started years ago. It's just getting worse in recent years."

The new parking lot is to be built in an area currently covered by a second-growth forest with trees from 50 to 120 years old. The trees now serve as a buffer to Cathedral Grove, Mr. Stini said. "[The Forest Ministry]is just adding to the problem."

Mr. Foy of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee said his organization has urged the government to spare the buffer zone and put the parking lot in a clearcut area on nearby private lands, where trees were recently cut and none have been replaced.

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