Rick Kantor welcomed a baby boy to the family on Dec. 20. But he hasn’t had much time to celebrate. The home he built two years ago on the Sumas Prairie had to be gutted following November’s historic flooding. For two weeks, he had water up to his countertops. “My wife and I lost pretty much everything we owned – all our clothes, most of our belongings, pictures, all our furniture,” the heavy-duty mechanic says.
Then came a record cold snap that has left most of British Columbia shivering under a prolonged deep freeze. It has made recovery all the more difficult for victims of the flood, including the Kantors. “All the insulation on the main floor had to be removed,” Mr. Kantor says, adding that his furnace was badly damaged. He’s been trying desperately to keep his house above freezing using electric heat, while he works on repairs. “It gets very windy out on Sumas Prairie. So the cold wind just goes through the house.”
The water lines have frozen, so he will be without water until it warms up. “The exterior walls are a sheet of ice right now. This devastation is not something I ever imagined I’d see,” Mr. Kantor says. He hasn’t been able to work for nearly two months. He is terrified of the bills “that keep piling up.”
The story is much the same in the Central Interior town of Spences Bridge, which has also been notching bone-chilling temperatures since Christmas. “We saw an 80-degree temperature swing in five months – from 50 above this summer to minus 30 today,” Steven Rice says. “It’s unbelievable.”
Mr. Rice, who owns the Packing House café with his wife Paulet, had a batch of piping-hot beef stew simmering on the stove while he spoke. The stew was destined for the 40 highway workers repairing the badly damaged Trans-Canada Highway near Nicomen. “It’s so cold, you just want to tuck away into a warm corner.” So he and Paulet have been cooking hot meals to try to keep the workers going.
Yesterday, it was warm chocolate-chip cookies and hot chocolate. Tomorrow it will be chili. “We’ll keep cooking for them until it warms up out there,” Mr. Rice adds.
With climate change, we’re going to see more of these extremes – as have been seen in B.C. already – says Brian Proctor, a meteorologist with Environment Canada. “More highs, more cold, more warmth, more storms.”
Mr. Proctor says it isn’t clear whether the rains and flooding and extreme cold can be connected to the other extreme weather events in B.C., such as last summer’s heat dome and fires. But there are connections between the events of the summer and those in the winter.
He says the heat and the fires were linked by a strong, long-lasting warm dome of high-pressure air that built up over Western Canada with hot temperatures, clear skies and dry air. As the westward flow of air from the Pacific resumed, it pushed warm moist air into B.C., resulting in thunderstorms and lightning, prompting a record flare-up in forest fires.
In the case of the floods and the cold, they were part of the same atmospheric roller coaster.
The ten Canadian provinces are situated in the mid-northern latitudes of the planet. Normally there is a meandering river of air that circles those latitudes that bring moisture in from the Pacific Ocean, moving west to east. That river usually ripples north and south within a relatively narrow band. But occasionally, it can become more energized and range further north and south, making for higher peaks and lower valleys than normal and bringing heavy rains to the West Coast of B.C. when the flow is onshore.
In November and early December, the river was being fed by very moist warm air from further south over the warmer part of the Pacific and driving that moisture northward, dousing the coast of North America from northern California to northern B.C. with record amounts of rain.
Recently that pattern shifted westward and is currently driving warm moist air north towards Alaska, which has seen balmy record-setting temperatures. Once that air has headed north, it becomes colder and drier. When that river of cold air is driven back south, it results in record cold air in Western Canada.
When the extreme cold hit B.C., Victoria Kuit, a Yarrow resident who has been helping people in the region affected by the flooding, started to receive messages asking for heaters, heat tape or pipe wrap.
Ms. Kuit says many affected houses had been stripped of the plywood and the drywall, and now many pipes had frozen as well. Some households in the Sumas Lake Bottom area still don’t have power, she added.
“It’s very defeating and heartbreaking to wake up and then see that the temperatures are below zero, because you’ve got the houses to the certain point where they can dry out and maybe they can rebuild, but now there’s a whole new issue [with] worrying about their plumbing,” she says.
Last month, Ms. Kuit built a small shelter in her backyard, which serves as a hub of resources for people in need. For the past two weeks, besides serving hot food at her shelter, now dubbed the Yarrow Food Hub, she and other volunteers have been tracking down generators, heaters, warm gloves and blankets and delivering them to residents in affected areas.
She says the hub has been feeding at least 100 people a day, and about 40 heaters are now circulating in different households.
“It’s terrible. It’s heartbreaking … It’s been an emotional roller coaster here.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling for Steven Rice. This version has been corrected.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.