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UXO experts resume hunt for unexploded bombs in North Vancouver

DND contractors are searching the recreational area for unexploded ordnance from the time it served as a military site between the 1930s and 1960s.

If North Vancouver’s Blair Rifle Range lands sound like a warzone in the weeks ahead, that wouldn’t be too far off.

Department of National Defence contractors have resumed their search for unexploded ordnance or UXO from the recreational area’s time as a military site between the 1930s and 1960s .

After surveying the Blair Rifle Range lands with metal detectors in 2018, the UXO team found about 200 kilograms of mortar shells, practice rounds and grenade components along the area’s trails and a half-metre buffer on either side.

“In 2018, when we went to the site, there was a really urgent need to go ahead and make the area safe for your site users. That was a very high priority. We addressed that high risk by clearing the trails in the open areas,” said Debbie Nicholls, senior project manager DND’s UXO program at a community information meeting on Monday, adding that the off-trail and forested areas on the southern portion of the site are now considering “medium risk” for intrusive activities.

“(We are back) just to add that extra level of safety for the community by going ahead and removing the items that are in the forest,” she said.

If and when the contractors’ metal detectors pick up anything potentially dangerous, explosives experts from Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt will be called in to safely deal with them. That could include carting them away for disposal or safely detonating them at the site.

“So, if you hear a big boom, that’s what it is,” Nicholls said.

When that happens, Nicholls said they will close off the trails and alert the nearby community first.

North Vancouver historian Donna Sacuta, who published a history of the Blair Rifle Range in 2015, said she was pleased to learn the UXO team would be back as she didn’t think the 2018 search was thorough enough.

“They’ll find more unexploded ordnances, for sure and it will, I think, leave more questions,” she said. “How much of the geography will they cover?”

DND’s admittedly incomplete official records only ever indicated that the range was used for rifle and small arms target practice. But Sacuta said, in her research, she came by a 1972 report that included information from an officer who insisted there was a munitions or grenades dump north of where the original shooting range targets were, which is outside where the current search is focused, she said.

“And that has never been investigated,” she said, adding that another report from 1995 acknowledged that the dump may be out there, but stated that the terrain was too difficult to carry out a search.

Since the range shut down, recreational trails have appeared and shifted around the lands with new ones popping up frequently, Sacuta added.

The chance of a UXO detonating on its own is very low, but it is possible if they are disturbed. A three-inch mortar has a “lethality radius” of 10 metres and a danger radius of 450 metres, officials said in 2018. Because of that, DND strongly advises against any digging or lighting campfires within the former rifle range lands.

The Blair Rifle Range lands are co-owned by Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation and the province, with trail maintenance delegated to the North Shore Mountain Bike Association.

There are no plans for any major changes to the site, according to CMHC. If there were, it would require a much more intrusive UXO search of the area, including deforestation.

“Currently, the Blair Rifle Range lands are designated for recreational purposes. There’s no foreseeable plans to change that designation,” CMHC spokesperson Leonard Catling said. “We recognize at CMHC the importance that this parcel of land plays to the community as a natural and recreational space.”

The new survey of the southern portion of the site, which started on Feb. 22, is expected to last for six weeks with the option to return in the fall if more work is necessary, according to DND.

The site will remain open throughout the work although, at times, trails will have to be closed while crews remove hazardous trees or low-lying brush or deal with a potentially dangerous UXO.

Even after the 2023 search is wrapped, it’s possible more UXO may remain, Nicholls said.

“Just because it’s a former military site, it is possible. It’s like finding a needle in the haystack,” she said.

Nicholls said if anyone every does spot anything that appears like it could be dangerous UXO, they should immediately leave the area and call 911.

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