Over a year has passed since a wildfire near Juniper Ridge forced residents to evacuate their homes and locals say concerns about the neighbourhood’s single exit point have gone unaddressed.
Highland Road, the only permanent Juniper Ridge access road, quickly became clogged with traffic during the July 2021 evacuation. Two emergency exits on the western edge of the neighbourhood were gated off and remained locked even as the wildfire raged on.
While the City of Kamloops says it’s always planned to add a secondary road out of the community, Juniper Ridge residents worry the decade-old promise isn’t a priority.
In the slow lane
Pamela Thomson has lived in Juniper Ridge for 17 years. Like many residents, she believes the city has pushed through residential developments in Juniper without considering the strain on the community’s infrastructure.
“It isn’t even enough for our existing population,” she says. “Now they’re expanding and there still isn’t that exit.”
According to city documents, Juniper Ridge’s population is projected to grow by about 2,620 people over the next two decades. Most of the neighbourhood is zoned for single-family housing.
A Change.org petition created shortly after the evacuation called on the City of Kamloops “to operate in a responsible manner and address the egress situation in the Juniper Ridge subdivision.”
The petition garnered 6,342 supporters, many of whom left comments echoing Thomson’s fears about future emergencies.
Marvin Kwiatkowski, the city’s development, engineering and sustainability director, says a paved, non-emergency road connecting Juniper Ridge to the nearby Rose Hill neighbourhood was included in the city’s 2007 Juniper West Plan and in each transportation master plan since.
However, he adds it might be a while before residents see the second Juniper Ridge access road built.
“That planned road was always in the plan,” he says. “We didn’t have a timeline for when it was to be triggered.”
City plans state Juniper Ridge’s Qu’Appelle Boulevard will grow westward as the neighbourhood does. The original 2007 plan says the “extension of Juniper roads (Qu’Appelle Boulevard and Coldwater Drive) through to Rose Hill will provide access/egress alternatives to both neighbourhoods.”
“Basically, it was to be built as development happens and occurs,” Kwiatkowski says.
Effective urban planning, including having multiple access routes and ensuring communities are aware of them, has been recognized as a way to reduce the risk of urban wildfires. The National Research Council of Canada says developers and local governments should consider the need for multiple access routes in and out of a community in case one cannot be used.
Kwiatkowski acknowledged that in the aftermath of last summer’s fire, a secondary Juniper Ridge access road needs to be built sooner rather than later. However, the city is still waiting on the provincial approvals needed to proceed with the Qu’Appelle extension.
Half of the land needed for the Qu’Appelle extension is currently provincial Crown land, while the other half is privately owned and falls under the responsibility of its developer. The city budgeted $2.5 million to develop the Crown land last fall.
Provincial approval is needed for the city to work on Crown land and cross water courses in gulleys along the planned route. Until it receives the necessary approvals from the provincial government, the city is unable to do the archaeological and geotechnical work necessary to begin development.
Kwiatkowski says construction was originally meant to start in 2023 but delays in provincial approval mean the project is unlikely to begin until 2024.
Amid community concerns that residential development has outpaced the city’s plans for Juniper Ridge, Kwiatkowski admitted the approach has not been perfect.
“We didn’t have a schedule and [the road] was depending upon development happening … in hindsight, should we have maybe looked at doing that connection sooner? Perhaps, yes.”
Emergency use only
Also specified in the city’s transportation master plans is the future of the emergency exit at the top of Coldwater Drive.
A May 2021 amendment to the plan clarified Coldwater Drive and High Canada Place would only be connected by a gated emergency access route, meaning the Qu’Appelle extension would be Juniper Ridge’s only other consistently accessible connecting road.
“Upper Coldwater is an emergency access route … That’s always been an emergency access route, always has been gated, and the intent is that it always will be an emergency access route and always will be gated,” says Kwiatkowski.
With some parts of the Coldwater emergency road narrowing to nearly a single lane, Kwiatkowski says Rose Hill residents expressed a desire for it to remain gated.
“Keeping that road open all the time will cause concerns for the Rose Hill residents … It’s not really the right thing to do for that existing neighbourhood.”
“[Rose Hill residents] wanted that gated,” Kwiatkowski says. “They wanted it in writing.”
Juniper Ridge currently has two emergency exits in addition to Coldwater, but neither can be opened permanently either.
One is in the Galore area of Juniper West, which, like the Coldwater exit, passes through Crown land. Kwiatkowski says emergency exits through Crown lands cannot be opened full-time.
The other exit, on the eastern side of Juniper Ridge, became ready for emergency use this past July but crosses through an active gravel pit so isn’t suitable for day-to-day use.
On Aug. 4, the city sent a development update on the Qu’Appelle extension and the three emergency access roads to the Juniper Ridge Community Association, which then posted it on its Facebook page.
The update said gated egress routes could be used in emergencies at the discretion of City staff and emergency responders. When the 2021 wildfire broke out, the gates remained locked despite dry conditions and forecasted lightning leading up to the fire.
Thomson didn’t see the city’s update when it was posted, but says she continues to be frustrated with its lack of action.
“I would’ve expected that information to have been a lot more timely,” she says. “Coming [in the] middle of August a year later is not, in my mind, sufficient for building trust in the community.”