Motorists travel during heavy snowfall in downtown Vancouver, late Monday, December 19, 2022. Most of British Columbia is covered by weather warnings as snow, extreme cold, arctic outflow winds grip the province, and those conditions are playing havoc with transportation, especially across the south coast. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Motorists travel during heavy snowfall in downtown Vancouver, late Monday, December 19, 2022. Most of British Columbia is covered by weather warnings as snow, extreme cold, arctic outflow winds grip the province, and those conditions are playing havoc with transportation, especially across the south coast. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Southern B.C. snowstorm halts flights at Vancouver airport, creates travel chaos

Snow, severely low temperatures and arctic winds gripping the province

Vancouver International Airport was crowded with stranded travellers Tuesday, many sitting or sleeping on floors, as heavy snowfall played havoc on transportation in the region during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

The snowfall was part of weather warnings that covered most of British Columbia as severely low temperatures and arctic winds gripped the province, forcing the suspension of flights at the airport just days before Christmas. Extreme cold warnings extended across Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba.

A statement from the airport said the storm had an “unprecedented” effect on flights.

Surrey resident Mary Guzman said she and her family boarded a flight to the Philippines at 9 p.m., hoping to enjoy Christmas with relatives there.

But after spending the night on the tarmac aboard the grounded plane, they were told the flight had been cancelled.

“The night was not easy, especially (because) we have a four-year-old daughter and an 88-year-old senior,” said Guzman, pointing to her toddler and mother.

“We didn’t sleep at all on the plane. But that’s the thing, we understand it’s for our safety. So I continue to pray that we can leave tonight.”

Officials with the Ministry of Transportation said as much as 30 centimetres of snow had covered parts of southern Vancouver Island while Metro Vancouver coped with up to 25 centimetres.

Residents were urged against non-essential travel. For those who must drive, the Insurance Corp. of B.C. recommended packing emergency kits including jumper cables, warm clothes and shovels.

Social media posts showed vehicles spinning out or stuck on the sides of roads, and some cyclists venturing out on two wheels.

The snow prevented counterflow on the Alex Fraser Bridge and Massey Tunnel, two major Metro Vancouver bottlenecks, and drivers were urged to use alternative routes.

The Coquihalla highway was temporarily closed southbound due to multiple vehicle incidents that began clearing just after noon.

The Vancouver airport temporarily suspended all incoming and outgoing flights early Tuesday, holding departing aircraft at their gates and stranding passengers aboard some arriving flights for hours, as those planes had no place to go.

A statement from YVR said it was dealing with the “mass cancellations,” working to “deplane passengers safely and deliver luggage to them in the terminal.”

“Passengers who are expecting to fly today and this week are advised to check with their airline directly on the status of their flight. We are asking people to please not come to YVR if you do not absolutely need to,” airport spokeswoman Megan Sutton said in an email.

“We recognize the effect these cancellations have on our community. We sincerely apologize to all of those impacted.”

Toronto resident Adam Abbi said he had been at the airport since Monday afternoon, after his flight home was delayed then cancelled.

He said he got through a long and sleepless night thanks to “espresso, two shots.”

“I am still trying to hold on, but I am about to deteriorate at any second,” Abbi said.

Kelowna International Airport was also suffering, with most flights delayed or cancelled.

The snowstorm shut down public services in Greater Victoria and severely restricted flights at Victoria International Airport.

Bus service in the capital was suspended early Tuesday and had yet to resume in the afternoon, but officials were making plans to begin a gradual return to service on some major routes, said BC Transit spokeswoman Tessa Humphries.

“All service is currently suspended in the Victoria Regional Transit system,” she said in an interview. “We are closely monitoring the conditions and our team is working very hard to resume service.”

Roads must be plowed for the routes to be used safely, she said.

At Victoria International Airport, some flights were landing and departing but there were numerous cancellations and delays earlier in the day, said airport spokesman Rod Hunchak.

“We’ve had over two dozen cancellations and around 18 delays,” he said, adding the airport typically handles about 70 flights daily.

“That will probably change as the day progresses. We’ve seen flights that were delayed turned into cancellations, so it’s changing all the time.”

Hunchak said airport crews worked overnight to keep the runways, roads and other airport areas clear, but the weather was challenging.

“Things are as good as can be expected considering the amount of snowfall that occurred,” said Hunchak. “Certainly, we didn’t have the same operational impact that Vancouver is experiencing. Our crews have been working since yesterday and we do have flights that are taking off and landing and departing.”

Humphries said public transit service in the Duncan and Cowichan Valley areas on Vancouver Island is currently suspended due to the poor road conditions, while transit in Nanaimo and the Comox Valley is operating, but riders should expect delays.

BC Ferries cancelled all morning sailings between the Mainland, Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast and southern Gulf Islands because of poor visibility and difficulty reaching ferry terminals, while police in Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, reported whiteout conditions along Highway 1 through the Fraser Valley.

The universities of B.C. and Victoria, as well as Simon Fraser University and the B.C. Institute of Technology, had all cancelled exams or classes scheduled for the morning with updates on afternoon plans expected later in the day.

Elsewhere around B.C., the ongoing deep freeze produced several daily minimum temperature records Monday, including a low of -46.8 C west of Williams Lake. The Quesnel area also broke a record set 78 years ago when it reached a low of -37.5 C.

A statement from BC Hydro said heating demands caused by the cold weather had resulted in a new record for peak hourly electricity demand on Monday night.

Consumption between 5 p.m. and 6.p.m. surpassed 10,800 megawatts, breaking the previous record set on Dec. 27, 2021.

The electricity supplier’s website showed more than 30 outages across the province Tuesday, most of them clustered on the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island.

The heavy snowfall also stranded Premier David Eby at home in Vancouver.

He said his eight-year-old son’s holiday camp was cancelled for the day and his three-year-old daughter’s child care was closed due to the snowfall.

“We’re all together here at home,” said Eby. “Both parents working remotely as in a flashback to pandemic days and whenever we get a window we’re going to fire those kids out into the snow, and in the meantime Netflix is our friend.”

—Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

RELATED: B.C. snowfall no winter wonderland for Vancouver’s poor and homeless, says advocate

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