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COVID-19 shuts down B.C. parks, including Pinecone Burke

“It has proven too challenging to maintain a safe distance between visitors” says B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman

Pinecone Burke Provincial Park will close to the public after the provincial government moved to shut down all B.C. parks in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The decision follows federal and provincial directives that people should stay home to minimize the transmission of the novel coronavirus. The measure is being described by the provincial government as “temporary,” meaning people shouldn’t expect to be allowed back in until further notice.  

“We tried to provide safe spaces for people to get some exercise and fresh air in our beautiful parks,” said Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman in a press release. “But it has proven too challenging to maintain a safe distance between visitors. This action is difficult but necessary. We look forward to the day we can welcome people back to our wonderful parks.”

The ministry says the decision to close the park system was made after hearing from the RCMP, local governments, First Nations, local search and rescue outfits and the public.

“While many people are observing the physical distancing requirements set by the provincial health officer (PHO), some continue to ignore the order, making enforcement in a wilderness setting challenging,” wrote a spokesperson for the ministry.

The news comes in the lead up to the Easter long weekend, which hails the beginning of a busy spring outdoor recreation season.


Michael Coyle, a spokesperson for Coquitlam Search and Rescue, said that despite the shut down of other amenities, like movie theatres and ski hills, search and rescue units across the province have seen a lower than average number of rescues over the course of the pandemic. 

That’s in stark contrast to reports of packed trailheads from Coquitlam to the Sea to Sky corridor.

“The outdoors is relatively safe as long as you maintain your spacing,” said Coyle, echoing provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s recent remarks. “But that being said, I did drive to Squamish last weekend and the trailheads are packed. There’s this huge demand.”

Coyle describes a “vicious cycle” where one park closes and everyone is increasingly concentrated along the trails that are still open. 

That was the case at Buntzen Lake before BC Hydro shut it down to the public. In earlier talks with Buntzen’s wardens, Coyle said they had been concerned about exposing themselves to the virus at public facilities like outhouses, where multiple touchpoints and high-traffic areas mean more risk.

A view at Pinecone Burke Provincial Park. 
A view at Pinecone Burke Provincial Park.  - Tristan Todd photo

“With the parks being closed, I do still worry that someone will try some non-park activity like grabbing a boat and going to the end of Pitt Lake. That’s the worry I’ve had all along,” said Coyle.

For Coquitlam Search and Rescue, the pandemic has forced them to take extra precautions, and while not limiting where they work — they’ll still attend a rescue in a closed park — it has affected how they work.

Last week, for example, a Coquitlam SAR team responded to an injured mountain biker on Eagle Mountain. Usually, the response would have been bigger and more hands-on. But in this case, once the pared-down team found the mountain biker was not seriously injured, they escorted him down the hill at a distance. 

“We have to worry about infecting each other, let alone the people we are rescuing,” said Coyle.

As for what comes next, one of the last things public officials can do to maintain social distancing outdoors has precedence in past fire seasons.

“They could close the backcountry,” said Coyle. “That seems the next thing they could do. At the time, I remember the outrage. But a lot of people realized the hazard and they dealt with it.”

In addition to the park closures, BC Parks is also extending the ban on all camping in provincial parks until May 31, 2020. That’s in alignment with the temporary closure of Canada's national parks. In the ministry statement, a spokesperson said refunds for bookings up to May 31 would be sent out automatically.