An e-mail that warned of the growing danger in Johnsons Landing was in circulation more than five hours before a debris torrent thundered down on the community, killing four people.
But the full extent of the hazard that was building above the small community in southeast British Columbia wasn’t known to anyone in authority until it was too late. And a suggestion in the e-mail, that the community get “the appropriate government agency to send a helicopter out here to take a look around,” wasn’t followed up.
The timing of the e-mail – sent by a resident identified only as Loran – and the failure of the government to be aware that Johnsons Landing was at risk, are issues likely to be examined in two inquiries that have been promised by the B.C. Coroners Service and the Ministry of Forests.
The debris torrent came raging down Gar Creek shortly before 11 a.m. MT last Thursday, destroying two homes and burying a man and three women. Two bodies have been recovered so far, and crews are on site searching for more human remains.
The government has acknowledged getting the warning e-mail at 8:47 a.m. Thursday, but has said the hydrologist who got the message was out in the field and didn’t open it until 11:30 a.m., a half hour after the slide occurred.
The original message, however, was sent at 4:56 a.m., under the subject heading “Gar Creek Safety”, and it contained explicit details about the hazard then looming over the community. It states there were “surges of chocolate coloured water” coming down the creek, along with rolling boulders and broken trees. It speculates that a landslide had dammed the creek somewhere upstream. “If such a dam breaks loose, it’s anybody’s guess as to how high the wall of water and logs coming down the valley might be,” it states. “We need to somehow learn FOR SURE what is actually going on up there.”
Gregory Utzig, a soil specialist, said when he saw the e-mail as part of a community mailing list at about 8 a.m. – three hours before the slide – he knew the community was at risk and he made plans to get out there to assess the situation himself.
Mr. Utzig, a private consultant and former terrain stability expert with the Ministry of Forests, owns a cabin in Johnsons Landing. He sent the e-mail on to a friend who is also a soil specialist, who then forwarded it to the government hydrologist. They decided to set out for Gar Creek that morning.
“We got there too late,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
The men arrived about 30 minutes after a massive wave of mud, rock and trees hit the community, taking the lives of Valentine Webber and his two daughters, Diana and Rachel, and of Petra Frehse, a German tourist.
“I was shocked and dismayed … it was pretty bad,” he said of the devastating scene that confronted him.
Mr. Utzig said he couldn’t fault the government for not responding to the e-mail because the intended recipient didn’t get it until too late. But he is critical of the government for not knowing of the danger on its own.
He said over the past 30 years, the Ministry of Forests has steeply reduced the number of foresters it has on the ground, and as a result the government doesn’t get an early warning when dangerous conditions start to build.
“The problem is there’s nobody on the ground anymore. I mean, this one person that we sent the e-mail to, he’s responsible for all of southeast B.C. and there are thousands of creeks like this … There’s no way one person can [patrol] all that,” he said.
But Minister of Forests Steve Thomson disagreed. “I don’t think there is any argument that … staffing levels or anything like that would have caught this particular situation,” he said. “We do have such a diverse, huge province that the ability to have resources in all these areas is going to be a physical sort of impossibility.”
Mr. Thomson said what happened in Johnsons Landing was a tragedy, and he has asked his deputy minister to conduct a review “to see if everything was done that could have been done.”