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Icy traffic nightmare on Burnaby roads triggers council questions

"We get into the habit of thinking we can control every aspect that nature throws at us. I will say that that's still not true, no matter what you do," said Burnaby's CAO.
City of Burnaby staff answered questions about big commuter delays during snowy weather last week.

Freezing temperatures and "slight snowfall" made for a hellish evening commute in Burnaby last week – and one city councillor wanted to know what happened.

Coun. James Wang said he received many concerned calls from residents, who said they were stuck in traffic for hours last Thursday.

The Burnaby Fire Department said the cold weather "played havoc" on the city's roads, as it dealt with 20 motor vehicle accidents in 24 hours ranging from minor fender benders to multi-car pile-ups.

"This experience, compared with the last few years, is (a) totally different experience and some residents even complained," Wang said at a council meeting Monday, Jan. 15.

"Maybe we aren’t doing some things before the snowfall."

Mayor Mike Hurley said he wanted to first address "the anomalies" that happened Jan. 11.

He said the streets were sprayed as per usual, but fast falling temperatures set off a series of unfortunate events.

"Unfortunately, there was a small snowfall, and that snowfall melted right away because of how we had sprayed the streets with salt," Hurley said at the council meeting.

"And right away the temperature dropped to below -10 C. And once the temperature dropped to below -10 C, the salts and whatever else we put on the roads becomes ineffective. So that’s really what happened; it’s not an excuse. We do need to do better, and I know staff know that."

Burnaby's new general manager of engineering May Phang added many commuters who went to work Thursday morning were not expecting that kind of weather to happen in the evening.

She said city vehicles and trucks later on became part of the traffic congestion and couldn’t move around.

To prepare better, Phang said, the city has several operational trucks that will be outfitted with snow equipment.

"So in the event that we do need more hands on deck, they will be readily available," she said.

Hurley said he instructed CAO Leon Gous to set up a group to discuss a different way of approaching these incidents when they happen, especially when the weather falls below certain temperatures.

Gous highlighted the "weird combination" of fast weather drop and "slight snowfall."

"It's unfortunate, but not just for Burnaby," Gous said.

"I don’t think there was a single municipality this side of the river that did any differently to be honest, because it wasn't, well, possible, given that situation."

He said the only thing to do when compacted ice happens at low temperatures is to make like the Prairies and put sand down.

"But again, at that point, when you have gnarled traffic, you can’t get through and put sand down – it’s just not possible," he said.

"We get into the habit of thinking we can control every aspect that nature throws at us. I will say that that's still not true, no matter what you do."

Burnaby's snow preparations will be put to the test again, as the city expects to see 10 to 20 centimetres of snow by Wednesday.

The city has salted priority routes and locations, and crews are ready to clear the way when snow arrives, according to the city's website.

–with files from Cornelia Naylor