Don Spencer gives a bit of a smoke show with his 1971 Dodge Challenger RT during a previous Thunder in the Valley drag racing event. ROGER HAGGERTY PHOTO

Drag racing could return to Port Alberni’s airport for 2019

New airport committee gives tentative nod to Thunder in the Valley returning to airport

The Alberni Valley Regional Airport (AVRA) has not been ruled out yet for 2019’s Thunder in the Valley drag races.

On Tuesday, March 26, the newly-formed Alberni Valley Airport Advisory Committee voted against recommendations from airport superintendent Mark Fortune to deny the race access at the airport for 2019. Instead, the committee recommended moving the Thunder in the Valley drag races back to the airport in August 2019.

The inaugural meeting of the new committee brought together eight voting members on Tuesday: ACRD directors Cindy Solda and Penny Cote, Richard Watts (representing Tseshaht First Nation), Brandy Lauder (representing Hupacasath First Nation), Shelley Crest (representing the Port Alberni Port Authority) and Dan Savard, Bob Kanngiesser and Mike Ruttan representing the Port Alberni business community.

Rob Williams, manager of environmental services for the ACRD, explained that the drag racing association’s future goal is to construct a facility off the airport runway. However, this goal is challenged by limited funds, as well as provincial land tenures around the airport and agricultural land reserve issues.

A consulting firm was hired by the ACRD to provide an analysis on the impact of the drag races on the airport runway. The report provided a number of concerns, including damage to the $1.5 million airfield lighting system and degradation of asphalt surfaces through excess rubber on the runway.

“In the end, we’ve provided a recommendation not to support the proposal as presented, and for staff to continue working with the association for alternatives off of the runway,” said Williams, emphasizing that this recommendation was made to protect the $8 million dollar investment in the airport’s expansion.

Dave Willis, a member of the Alberni Valley Drag Race Association (AVDRA), provided his own rebuttal to the report. He explained on Tuesday that the association plans to clean up loose rubber after the event at the airport and will put its burn-out boxes off the runway in order to avoid excess rubber on the track. The association will also pay $10,000, in addition to its yearly rent for storage, and will pay for any damages that are incurred.

A number of other airports in B.C. also host drag-racing events, Willis pointed out, but AVDRA is the only association that hosts only one event per year.

“We’re asking for one event which brings a ton of money into the Valley,” he said.

The Alberni Valley Regional Airport is considered an aerodrome, which means there are no scheduled carriers in and out of the airport. All flying would be shut down for the Thunder in the Valley weekend. In addition, Fortune said that the Thunderbirds firefighting team would have “restricted” helicopter use with the drag races going on.

However, Willis emphasized that in the case of an emergency—such as a wildfire—the drag races would be shut down.

Doug Holmes, ACRD CAO, said that the airport has applied for a GPS approach, which helps pilots locate airports and guide them to land in less-than-ideal weather. Holmes added that some tree removal has to take place before this can happen.

READ: Alberni airport one step closer to published GPS approach

“Once we can attest that the airspace is clear through that GPS instrument landing area, then it can be posted and registered [with Transport Canada],” he said.

Kanngiesser pointed out that because of this, the AVRA is not yet a “formal, designated airport.”

“Until we are, we’re nothing but a private strip used by a few people that has historically been used by the drag racing association,” he said. “I really wonder why we don’t say go back for at least this year.”

Crest expressed her concern about forest fires. During last year’s Thunder in the Valley drag races, a 10-hectare fire raged on the Beaufort Range and BC Wildfire Service’s helicopters used the AVRA to land and refuel.

READ: Wildfire near Port Alberni doubles in size

READ: Wildfires led to increased air traffic at Alberni Valley Regional Airport in August

This year, added Crest, is expected to be a drought year.

“When I hear that yes, there’s going to be a restriction on the helicopters landing, what exactly does that mean, in terms of fire hazard and safety?” she asked. “Without that information, we don’t have a full picture.”

Despite her concerns, Crest made the motion on Tuesday to recommended approving the use of the airport for 2019, subject to information about fire safety, tenant agreements, insurance and damage mitigation.

“If the damages can be mitigated…I think we should allow it for this year, but there’s no commitment for any other year,” she said.

This motion was passed by the committee. Ruttan voted against it, stating that the AVDRA invested time, effort and money into moving the races from the airport to the city. “For us to consider saying you can move back to the airport for one year…that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “This isn’t fair to them and it isn’t fair to the users of the airport and it’s certainly not fair to the staff of the ACRD.”

Before the drag races are allowed to take place at the airport, the recommendation still has to pass through the Alberni Valley and Bamfield Services Committee followed by a regular ACRD board meeting. Regardless of the final decision, the AVDRA has already received approval from the city to hold the races on Stamp Avenue in 2019, in case the airport doesn’t work out.

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