While Vancouver Island is primed for the potential of a white Christmas, longtime residents will remember when Mother Nature went all in and buried the region in half-a-decade’s worth of snow.
Snow first started falling on Dec. 21, 1996 and continued every day, apart from Christmas, through Dec. 29, amassing 153.2 centimetres over the Capital region during that span.
Nearly 80 per cent of that fell on Dec. 26, 27 and 28, with Dec. 28-29 seeing 61 centimetres of snow, which remains an all-time 24-hour record for the region. At its peak, there was 90 centimetres of snow sitting on the ground. It’s still the most snow the region has seen in December since records began, and made 1996 the snowiest year on record.
The city was shut down, with cars left buried and abandoned under snowbanks and driving highly discouraged by virtually every municipality and police force.
“A friend of mine said he wanted a white Christmas a week ago,” resident Marcus Gilby said at the time in an interview with the Goldstream News Gazette. “I’m sure he’s sorry now.”
Frank Leonard, who had just been elected mayor of Saanich when the blizzard hit, said coordinating all the emergency services and securing the services of snowplows was a challenge.
“We sure could have used social media, everything was old-fashioned over the phone,” he said. “Some days I would be driving the snowplow, clearing streets, but a lot of the time I would be taking calls from people who were asking, ‘When are you going to come clear my street?’”
While some people got “riled up,” Leonard said the majority came together and helped each other out, by shovelling walkways and when the snow melted, keeping storm drains clear to prevent flooding.
Victoria’s mayor at the time, Bob Cross, was living in Metchosin and wasn’t able to get into the city. Leonard said Cross asked him if they should declare a state of emergency.
“It’s more a state of inconvenience, not emergency,” Leonard said.
Current Metchosin Coun. Kyara Kahakauwila remembers the blizzard more fondly than some might.
She had just graduated and was working at the corner store in Metchosin when the snow started to fall, prompting her boss to allow her to close early.
“As an 18 year old, it was fun,” she said. Being at a different place in life, having more responsibilities, alters one’s view of situations, she said. “Even last year, the snow that we had was significant. So as a business owner, as a mom of teenagers, it was a completely different experience than when I when I was 18.
“It was a fantastic scene in the city to see how quickly everything just shut down, but it was beautiful, too,” she added.
Debra Craig was living with her sister in an apartment on the corner of Quadra and Bay streets and watched out the window as people slipped and skied down the road.
“I saw this one elderly woman was trying to make her way down the street so I went out to help her, but so much snow had accumulated that when I stepped out – I’m not very tall anyways – I was up to my waist.”
While Vancouver Island is forecast to have snowy conditions over Christmas this season, it’s highly unlikely to be anywhere near the 1996 levels. Historical records show the greatest snowfall for Dec. 25 in Victoria is 9.1 centimetres in 1971, but the record for the most snow on the ground for the day is 35 centimetres in 2008.
Craig secretly hopes Victoria sees lots of snow.
“Even though it was crazy, even though it stopped life, it was just something to experience for sure,” she said.