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Two weeks ago, the single highway connecting several west coast communities on Vancouver Island was shut down because of a wildfire. The fire, east of Port Alberni, was so far away that the skies above Tofino and Ucluelet were clear; not at all smoky. But suddenly, the towns were cut off – Port Alberni too, as well as some First Nations communities.

Highway 4 is expected to reopen this weekend, with single-lane alternating traffic through the area of the wildfire, which is now under control.

And this is only one instance. In an already unprecedented fire season, what else might we face this year across Canada – and, as the climate emergency continues, in years to come?

There are still ways over to Tofino – by plane, if you can afford it, and by a gravel-road alternate route, if you can handle it. But authorities have recommended that ground route for essential travel only.

The highway closure comes at a terrible time. June is a critical month, launching the busy tourist season. Businesses were gearing up with new hires and stocked supplies. And this June comes after a soft fall and winter – not to mention all the losses and uncertainty of COVID before that.

Property taxes are due in early July, and some people were relying on June revenues to pay them. This time, there’s no federal COVID funding to bridge the gap, but rather, looming COVID loans to repay. Then there’s inflation. Everything costs more right now, just as so much less is coming in.

The loss of the road is an issue not just for tourism, but for locals who need supplies, have medical appointments or must travel for other reasons. There was also the problem of getting the tourists who were already there out, especially if they’re driving rental cars with contracts stipulating no driving on gravel roads.

The tony Wickaninnish Inn went from about 75 per cent occupancy to 40 per cent during that first week of the shutdown. After June 13, when officials announced the highway wouldn’t open until at least June 24, it was down to 20 to 30 per cent capacity. “We are not in a profitable situation,” managing director Charles McDiarmid told me.

Some businesses have had to lay off staff. Some workers have left town for jobs elsewhere.

“I’ve been watching money just bleed away,” says Heather Riddick with the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort in Ucluelet, which she estimates has lost about 40 per cent of its revenue for this month. “Businesses are now on their knees.”

Even once the highway re-opens, so much damage has been done. Some people have cancelled reservations into August, including international travellers. Over in Europe, they’re hearing about their vacation spot being cut off by a wildfire the same time they’re reading headlines about wildfires from Canada choking cities in the U.S. Far away, a connection is made, and a decision: Let’s not chance it.

The locals are doing what they can. People who have had to make the trip along the gravel-roads detour have brought in supplies for others: photocopier paper for a veterinarian clinic; a meat order for the Wickaninnish; some tropical fish for someone who had ordered them.

When Port Alberni opened emergency shelters on June 6, they expected around 30 people. They ended up housing more than 200 stranded people that night, including school groups. When word got out about the high demand, volunteers came out of the woodwork, dropping off supplies, including toys and colouring books.

The talk now must turn, and has turned, to building a viable alternative. Not another highway, necessarily. But perhaps widening and paving a second route to make it safer and more accessible.

“Global warming is a thing,” says Erika Greenland, who owns a Tofino property management and cleaning company for vacation rentals. “I’d love to see something put in place for our community at the end of the road, with a better alternate route planned for situations like this.”

This desire is being made clear to provincial officials.

“We will be consistently pursuing this going forward and we have over the years as well, but definitely with a new energy,” says Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions, a spokesperson for the Emergency Operations Centre.

This problem is only going to intensify. Over the weekend, the Donnie Creek wildfire in northeastern B.C. was declared the largest in the province’s recorded history. It is dangerously close to the Alaska Highway.

A viable alternate route for communities at risk of being cut off by the effects of climate change should not be optional. Nor should it only be available to those who can afford vehicles that can withstand rough roads, or have bank accounts that allow them to fly.

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