Blast of Arctic air set for much of B.C. after blowing snow brings travel chaos

Sudden, blowing snowfall that pummelled much of British Columbia with a side of freezing wind on Sunday, knocking out power to thousands and wreaking havoc on city roads isn't over yet. 

By Monday, the Arctic front that pushed onto the South Coast on Sunday night had prompted extreme cold and Arctic outflow warnings across virtually all of B.C., bringing with it the "coldest air so far this winter," forecasters say.

Environment Canada warned the storm system will bring winds up to 80 km/h with wind-chill temperatures of –20 C or lower in the south, and nearing –40 C in northern areas.

"The entire province right now is below freezing temperatures," Environment Canada meteorologist Bobby Sekhon said Monday morning.

Several more storm systems are in the forecast this week, and a special weather statement has been issued for the South Coast, including Metro Vancouver, the Howe Sound region and Vancouver Island. 

An initial weaker system is expected to develop over the Strait of Georgia on Monday night. A second storm is forecast to hit Tuesday night, bringing heavier snowfall, and a third system is brewing for Thursday. Significant snow and wind are expected with the trio of systems, according to Environment Canada.   

Sunday's snow across the inner South Coast caused dozens of crashes, delays or closures on several highways and bridges. Drivers woke up Monday to find slushy, icy roads and a dicey commute. Some ended up in gridlock traffic.

The foul weather even grounded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who intended to travel from Vancouver to Victoria for a meeting with B.C. Premier John Horgan. The premier's office said Monday the two leaders will speak by video conference instead.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Schools closed, power out

At least half a dozen school districts in B.C., mostly in the Fraser Valley, cancelled classes Monday due to unsafe conditions and the amount of snow on the ground. Both campuses of the University of the Fraser Valley were also closed for the day.

More than 7,000 customers across the Lower Mainland, Okanagan and northern half of Vancouver Island remained without power Monday morning after the storm, but hydro has since been restored to most residents.

Roads affected

Police in Delta said Monday morning a three-vehicle head-on crash forced the closure of Highway 17 at the start of the causeway leading to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. One person was seriously injured in the crash and had to be airlifted to hospital. The causeway remained closed while crash investigators pieced together what happened.

BC Ferries customers should expect delays in and out of the Tsawwassen terminal. The corporation said customers with reservations, however, should be boarded on the next available sailing.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Ashok Bhatti, executive director of the South Coast region for the transportation ministry, told CBC News that clearing Highway 1 is the top priority for the region, and that contractors were out early Monday, plowing, salting and brining the road.

But he acknowledged that highway conditions weren't ideal along some stretches, and said commuters should check DriveBC and plan ahead before hitting the road.

"We still had some compact, slippery sections out there and that's just something that you can expect when we have inclement weather and it's changing regularly," Bhatti said.

Eastbound lanes of Highway 1 in Langley were temporarily shut down Monday afternoon because of a jackknifed semi wedged underneath an overpass at 264 Street. One lane was closed westbound due to the same incident, leaving commuters trying to get to the city stuck in slushy bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Blowing snow warnings remained in effect for the Coquihalla Highway and parts of Highway 3. Non-essential travel is not recommended.

A number of major highways, including the Coquihalla as well as Highway 1, were forced to close Sunday night after whiteout conditions threw traffic into chaos. Some drivers who were already out when the snow began had little opportunity to get off the road before the powder piled up, leaving them to crawl well below the speed limit with hazard lights flashing. 

Other drivers, ill-prepared without proper snow tires, spun out on snowy roads. At least a dozen buses in Metro Vancouver ended up on sidewalks.  

"We had some pretty terrible weather last night," Sekhon said.

He said different areas of the Lower Mainland saw between five and 20 centimetres of fresh snow Sunday night, depending on elevation. The North Shore and higher areas of Coquitlam were believed to be hardest hit, with upwards of 20 centimetres in a short time frame, the meteorologist said.

Arctic outflow happens when bitterly cold Arctic air breaks out of the B.C. Interior and spills out through mountain gaps and fjords, according to Environment Canada, sending a chill through other parts of the province. Warnings happen when a combination of wind speed and cold temperatures combine to produce wind chills of at least –20 C for at least six hours.

Dozens of skiers and snowboarders were stuck on Mount Seymour overnight after a multi-vehicle crash, reportedly involving a fire truck responding to a previous crash, shut down the only access road up and down the mountain. 

Ben Nelms/CBC

Transit: 'Build in extra travel time'

In Metro Vancouver on Monday, TransLink said transit users should "build in extra travel time."

The transit authority said SkyTrain was running normally, though long lines of passengers avoiding taking their own vehicles wound around major stations across the region, and passengers reported lengthy waits. At one point, doors on one SkyTrain were jammed due to ice buildup.

Jason Marr

Bus routes were "looking OK," according to a tweet from the authority, but riders were warned service could be slow due to icy roads.

Ferries: Some sailings cancelled

BC Ferries also cancelled several sailings Sunday between the mainland and Vancouver Island as gusting wind made docking too risky. Monday morning sailings filled up quickly on key routes between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay, between Tsawwassen and Duke Point, and between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay.

"It will be very busy today," said corporation spokesperson Chelsea Carlson.

Flights: Some delays

Vancouver International Airport said it was seeing some delayed flights due to the winter weather. Passengers are asked to check the status of their flight and give themselves a little extra time before coming to the airport.

Margaret Gallagher/CBC