A bus crash that sent 18 workers at a pipeline camp to hospital Friday near Prince George, B.C., has drawn attention to poor conditions and persistent safety issues on the province’s unpaved back roads, especially those often used by industry and outdoors enthusiasts.
The charter bus carrying 30 workers was driving on the Firth Lake forest service road (FSR), about an hour from Prince George, when the incident occurred.
All of the 18 people injured in the crash were released from the hospital as of Sunday, according to Northern Health.
The camp houses pipeline workers for Coastal GasLink, which said in a Friday statement it was grateful for the care workers received “and that this did not result in a more serious accident.”
What caused the crash is still unclear, according to B.C. RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Chris Manseau. But he noted that early-morning rain on the gravel road Friday made the conditions “quite poor.”
“I know that it was raining for some time prior to [the incident],” Manseau said. “So we’ll be looking into that, to see whether road conditions did cause, or were a factor in, this crash.”
It’s not the first accident on one of the province’s more than 620,000 kilometres of resource roads. In 2019, a bus crashed on an unpaved road near Bamfield, B.C., killing two University of Victoria students.
That sparked a probe by the Auditor General of B.C. into whether the province’s forests, lands and resources ministry adequately maintained its forest service roads.
“We found that the ministry did not complete critical maintenance and repairs on roads, bridges and major culverts,” said Michael Pickup in a 2021 statement, finding that B.C. “did not manage safety and environmental risks on FSRs in accordance with its policies.” He called on B.C. to invest more into inspections and maintenance at the time.
And B.C.’s drivers are often reliant on these more treacherous roads when climate disasters or wildfires shut down major highways, including the ongoing closure of Highway 4 on Vancouver Island.
As investigators piece together what went wrong in Friday’s crash, one back road safety expert said there are far more hazards on resource roads than paved highways.
‘Another level of hazard’
“Driving on a forest service road or resource road, you never really know what’s coming unless you know that road,” Christopher Walker, the owner and president of Overland Training Canada, told CBC news. “So it’s just another level of hazard.”
His firm offers professional off-road safety courses for B.C.’s many unpaved resource and forest service roads. His students include members of the oil and gas, mining and forestry industries, and some recreational enthusiasts, too.
“Most of those roads don’t have any barriers on the side,” he said. “The visibility level of you driving down the road to see other traffic coming towards you is far decreased compared to a normal highway … There’s less traction on those roads [and] the corners are tighter.”
In the Prince George area where Friday’s accident happened, for instance, Walker said “those roads get really, really soft and really, really muddy” in spring and fall seasons. He also said that there are also dangers presented by “big drop-offs, less traction, wildlife, steep ditches, steep hills, and lack of signage.”
While roads like Firth Lake FSR were originally built for the logging industry, a growing number of sectors now travel them either to access projects or to move personnel and equipment around.
Each industry will maintain the roads they travel to the conditions needed for their particular type of vehicles and uses, but not necessarily all types of drivers or vehicles, said Walker. And larger industry vehicles tend to be heavier and take more time and distance to stop, he noted.
In a Facebook post Friday, Horizon North, the company sub-contracted by Coastal GasLink to operate the work camp, said the bus was driving the company’s employees from Prince George to the work site.
“We are conducting a full investigation to determine the cause of the incident,” the company wrote in a post on its Facebook page on Friday. “Our immediate priority is the safety and wellbeing of our employees and ensuring they receive the medical attention and support they need.”
The union representing workers at the oil and gas operation involved in the incident, UNITE HERE 40, was unavailable for comment over the weekend but said it was speaking with the workers at the site and planned to issue a statement Monday.
But Walker said issues of improving the safety of B.C.’s back country resource roads don’t just affect those in industry. Better signage, drivers’ education, and safety measures would benefit many hunters, campers and other recreational motorists.
“People are using these roads more,” he said. “Since since the pandemic … I think that we’re seeing an increase in the user group.”
One way to improve safety is for users to educate themselves on the hazards of such routes, and Walker encouraged people the consult the B.C. Forest Safety Council advice, learn to use the province’s radio communications system when driving resource roads, or take a training course for back roads motorists.