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Rockslide shuts down Okanagan highway, locals take hours-long detour

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Okanagan residents who rely on Highway 97 near Summerland are now forced to take detours that are at least three hours long.

On Monday afternoon, boulder-sized rocks plunged down onto the highway about one kilometre north of Summerland, between Bridgeman and North Beach roads.

Michael Mayer is a pilot living in Summerland and commutes to Kelowna for work.

He said he noticed rock activity in the weeks leading up to the slide and maintenance crews appeared to be aware of the situation.

“There were small rocks, debris coming down onto the travel lanes. And as that stuff was coming down, it was being cleaned regularly off to the side,” he told CTV News. “(There was) progressively more and more debris coming down onto the highway. And as each day passed, the debris got larger, and I think it was just a matter of time before everything just gave way onto the highway like it did.”

According to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the rockslide dumped approximately 3,000 cubic metres of material onto the road.

The stretch between Callan Road and Okanagan Lake Provincial Park is closed while a geotechnical assessment is underway to determine when is it safe for crews to clear the debris and to ensure there is no further risk of another slide, the ministry said.

There is no estimated time for reopening the highway.

This year has become the province’s worst wildfire season, and Mayer is worried about how the highway closure would impact residents if another wildfire were to ignite in the south Okanagan.

“It's been a summer full of wildfires surrounding the area where I live and now with a road closure, it just adds one extra layer of complexity and kind of thinking about the 'what ifs' in life,” he said.

LOCALS TAKE FOREST SERVICE ROAD

Transportation officials are advising people to take highways 97C/5A/3 or Highway 33 as detours.

But many locals in the south Okangan have been taking the 201, a forest service road that links to Highway 33 without needing to go through Rock Creek.

“It's a detour that is heavily, heavily relied upon by locals. It's the only detour that gets you to and from Kelowna to Penticton in kind in under a three-hour timeframe,” Mayer said.

But he said the driving conditions were not ideal.

Locals have been using a dusty forestry road known as the 201 as a detour during the Highway 97 closure. (photo: Douglas Brown)

“Yesterday was very, very dusty, even with rain moving through, very dusty. Visibility was quite limited,” he said. “It's certainly not maintained right now to handle that kind of traffic.”

He said he's fortunate that he can stay with family in Kelowna, but it is just a short-term solution.

He said there have been calls in the past to maintain 201 since Highway 97 is prone to rockslides.

In a statement Tuesday, the ministry acknowledged there have been slides in the past.

“This specific location where the rockfall occurred has had minor rockfalls historically,” it wrote.

Highway 97 was closed for about a month in February 2019 after a rockslide at Callan Road, not far from where this recent slide occurred.

The BC United MLA for Penticton said there should be upgrades made to the 201 Forest Service Road.

“I'm not asking for it to be paved, what I'm asking is that we have permanent signage in place, and we may have to do a little tiny bit of roadwork on a couple corners north towards Kelowna,” Dan Ashton told CTV News.

“We are going to have to make some changes so that we have that secondary route close by,” he said. “In the entire Okanagan Valley, this is the only place-- between Penticton and Kelowna --that doesn't have a close in proximity, secondary route.”

The Transportation Ministry did not respond to questions directly about calls for upgrades to the forest road, but in a release, drivers are advised to avoid taking back roads.

“The back route detours are not recommended as an alternate route, particularly during darkness and without a full tank of gas, food and water. The ministry is working with partners to prepare safe, reliable detour routes for the public by grading them and providing directional signage,” a spokesperson wrote.

Geotechnical engineers are investigating the area and will provide a timeline for reopening but the ministry does not expect that section of Highway 97 to reopen before the Labour Day long weekend. 

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