Wednesday, May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

Rescuers press for Mount Maxwell Road improvements

The historically rough gravel road leading to one of Salt Spring’s most spectacular views is getting worse, according to island emergency officials — and with no provincial plans to improve it, agencies tasked with safety are buying more capable vehicles, redesigning emergency plans or simply working longer hours as access to Mount Maxwell Provincial Park becomes increasingly poor. 

In response to questions from the Driftwood, officials with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) agreed the road currently is “steep, narrow and rough” and noted MoTI has posted signs that four-wheel-drive vehicles with higher-than-average clearance are “strongly recommended” for those wanting to use the road. 

But, according to MoTI, beyond those warning signs, visitors to the park — and emergency responders — shouldn’t expect anything different. 

“While the ministry maintains the road as best as possible, it quickly degrades due to the steepness and exposed bedrock,” the ministry said in a statement. “Given the challenging natural terrain and its location on an ecological reserve, there are no current plans to upgrade the road.” 

Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue (SSIFR) Chief Jamie Holmes said the condition of Mount Maxwell Road — as well as other rough roads on the island, such as those up to Mount Bruce and down to Musgrave Landing — factored heavily into recent equipment acquisition, specifically the new brush truck. 

“It’s a bit of the rationale for why the new brush truck looks so ‘mean’ for the streets of Salt Spring,” said Holmes of the high clearance 4×4. “That road over the last 10 years has gone significantly downhill.” 

While upgrading the off-road capabilities of the department helps get crews in faster — it’s better to get there while there’s less fire to fight, Holmes said — the new brush truck is hardly ideal for transporting patients. But there may not be much choice; on some steep and rough roads, ambulances just can’t make it, and rescuers can find themselves transporting patients farther than expected. 

On April 7, Salt Spring Island Search and Rescue (SSISAR) was called out to assist an injured person, reportedly hurt near one of the unofficial rock-climbing routes in the park. The man had a significant leg injury, according to SSISAR manager and paramedic Jason Grindler, with 14 SSISAR members involved in a difficult evacuation that included an hour-long carry-out in a basket stretcher and two separate rope assists on steeper, more technical sections of the trails.

But while transport from the parking lot near the scenic outlook would usually be via BC Ambulance, during this rescue the ambulance was unable to navigate the last stretch of rough road, requiring the victim be carried in SSISAR’s equipment vehicle down to a staging area near Maxwell Lake before paramedics could bring him to the hospital for further care. 

SSISAR members provided transport to the summit parking lot for two BCEHS paramedics so they could accompany the patient during his descent, Grindler said, but the extra steps meant delays in both response and evacuation time — as well as increased pain and discomfort to person being rescued, despite ongoing pain management and effective padding for comfort.  

“The washboard and washed-out surfaces in some areas forced SAR vehicles to slow to a walking pace,” he said, “with one section in particular requiring the rescue vehicle needing to be spotted in 4-wheel drive in low range to navigate very deep uneven ruts and holes in the road.” 

Grindler said SSISAR hoped MoTI would consider solutions to improve at least some of the more damaged sections, and that the organization’s board of directors would be sending letters to the ministry and to BC Parks to that effect. SSIFR Chief Holmes agreed it would be helpful, but worried the cost of upgrades might make the province decide it could be cheaper to close the road to vehicles altogether. 

“My suspicion would be that they might just turn it into a walking park, versus being able to drive up to the lookout,” said Holmes. “I’m hesitant to complain too much because I could see them shutting down vehicle access completely.” 

A safety advisory posted on BC Parks’ official website has a longstanding warning of “rough driving conditions” on the road, recommending experienced drivers and “only 4X4 vehicles with high clearance” travel upon it. BC Parks has also advised rock climbing — as well as slack-lining and hang gliding — is prohibited within Mount Maxwell Park, per another safety advisory online since at least 2021.

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